Parliamentarians seeking to delay or stop Brexit entirely were already playing a dangerous game with democracy given the result of the 2016 referendum – a vote described by then-Prime Minister David Cameron as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” – prior to the warning that their tactics risk dragging the Queen into the accelerating political crisis.
Attempts, led by former attorney general Dominic Grieve, to enable backbenchers to choose to debate and vote on Brexit issues, one day a week – breaking with the convention that the Government controls the parliamentary timetable – have been condemned on the basis they risk involving the monarch in “a legislative showdown” between the Commons and Theresa May’s executive.
Sir Stephen Laws QC, the Government’s former top constitutional lawyer, says he can foresee a situation where Government ministers would ask the Queen to withhold Royal Assent from a bill to prevent it becoming law, a scenario he fears would have “potentially horrific, constitutional consequences”. No monarch has withheld royal assent since Queen Anne in 1707.
Over the last seven decades of her reign, Her Majesty has assiduously remained politically neutral and no matter how strongly-held their views on Brexit, no right-minded MP would surely wish to put the Queen in such a difficult position and such an unintended consequence must be avoided as a matter of priority.
But as MPs continue to row over how best to deal with Brexit – and even whether to go through with it at all – all sides would do well to heed the monarch’s words in her recent Christmas message as the debate becomes ever more heated. As she wisely put it: “Even with the most deeply-held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a good first step towards greater understanding.”