On Wednesday, Jack Blackburn, history correspondent and deputy diary editor at The Times, weighed in on reports that Prime Minister Boris Johnson would go to extreme lengths to hold on to power, inadvertently introducing a new phrase that helped Americans understand what was really at stake. “This would activate the Queen,” he tweeted. “Lascelles Principles will direct her to decline his request for a dissolution. She then is left with the choice to dismiss him or not.”
By the time Johnson announced he would resign—eventually—in a Thursday speech at 10 Downing, the phrase “activate the queen” had become a trending topic on Twitter. It’s ultimately the use of a little chess lingo (to “activate” a piece means to put it on a better position on the board), but in one simple phrase it just so happens to capture both the internet’s constant preoccupation with the queen’s health and common confusion about her role as the head of state.
Now that Johnson is seemingly on his way out—reportedly after he throws a wedding celebration at Chequers with his wife, Carrie—there are still a few questions left to answer: Did the queen get involved? ITV reports that Johnson and the queen did have their usual weekly phone meeting on Wednesday evening, and then another conversation on Thursday morning. Before the meeting, he was adamant that he would not resign, but because the monarch’s meetings with a prime minister are strictly confidential, we might never know whether she influenced his change of heart.
But there is still a chance that the queen might have to play her role as head of state in public. Currently, Johnson is stepping down as the leader of the Conservative Party, starting a long process to choose a new leader that will eventually extend to 200,000 or so party members. By convention, that process will likely keep him in power until the fall. According to Robert Hazell, professor of government and the constitution at University College London, the queen might have to get involved if there is further pressure on Boris to make his resignation effective immediately. “If there is pressure for Johnson to stand aside and for an interim prime minister to be appointed, the queen will want to be assured that that person can command the confidence of Parliament,” he said in an email Thursday morning. “In practice, that may mean asking the cabinet to nominate the interim prime minister.”
There’s still confusion on what might happen next, but these sorts of situations illustrate exactly why holding on to neutrality and legitimacy are so important to the queen and her heirs. Regardless, she will likely soon be getting to know a new prime minister, the 15th in her 70-year reign.
As for Johnson, his rocky tenure will live on in our hearts. In the speech announcing his intent to resign, he made a comment that encapsulated both his odd appeal and why plenty of his countrymen are sick of him. “I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world,” he said. “But them’s the breaks.”
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