Why would British PM resign over a scandal with the King?

British King Edward VIII abdicated the throne because being King prevented him from marrying a divorced American. OK, that seems harsh by today’s standards, but guess people cared about that back then. But here’s what I don’t get – Wikipedia says British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin would have been forced to resign if the King were married. I understand if the PM disapproved of the marriage and did everything to pressure the King not to do it; but why would he be forced to resign? Surely the King’s scandal wouldn’t have made voters think less of the PM, would it?

There is a very important convention that the British monarch only acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. Of course, there’s a bit of give-and-take on minor issues, but if, on a major issue, the PM says, “Sir/Madam, I advise you not to take that course of action,” and the monarch ignores that advice, the PM would really have not choice but to resign.

Of course, that would general mean that HM Government would no longer have the support of the majority party in the House of Commons, so that, as the appropriated money ran out, HM Government would no longer be able to carry on business, unless a general election intervened, and another party supporting the monarch’s action gained a majority in the House. So it’s not going to happen unless HM is really sure that HM’s loyal opposition would win the resulting general election – and it hasn’t happened in the UK for at least 200 years.

I am neither British nor a historian, but… It’s common in the UK for a government to resign after a major policy issue fails to go their way; it’s seen as tantamount to a vote of no confidence, an implication that they cannot govern effectively. It’s rare (well, unheard of) for the monarch to have anything to do with that, but whether to marry and whether to hold the throne were two decisions that were the King’s to make, but the combination had institutional repercussions that made it impossible for the government to ignore. If Edward VIII had married Wallis Simpson and retained the throne against the PM’s vigorous objection (and the law), a new election would have been required to show that the government still held a mandate.

The King is the theoretical seat of all sovereignty/governing power; his ministers by this conceit act to carry out the royal will. In point of fact, of course, under nearly every conceivable scenario, power vests in the ministers who are chosen from the party/coalition controlling the House of Commons, and they “advise” (i.e., tell) the king what he will and will not do. (This is ameliorated a bit by the fact that the reigning monarch represents stability and combines decades of experience with an absolute constitutional ban on partisanship; it’s a cast iron idiot of a Prime Minister who completely discounts that resource.)

While the Prime Minister is the head of the party or coalition controlling Commons. in point of fact he is chosen by the king (or queen regnant). it’s merely that the list from whom the monarch may choose has only one name on it – at present, Mr. Cameron. The system hinges on the monarch being willing to take the “advice” (really directions) of his/her ministers. A P.M. whose advice has been rejected by the monarch has no choice but to resign – but that resignation sets off a constitutional crisis, because it means the king or queen is going against the will of the people as expresse3d by their elected M.P.s. In 1936 the idea that the king, head of the Church and embodiment of domestic values, might marry a woman divorced from a living husband, was sufficiently against British public opinion that Baldwin felt called on to formally and officially advise Edward not to marry her. When Edward expressed his intent to do so anyway, Baldwin let him know that he would have no choice but to resign, triggering a constitutional crisis. Though it was all played out behind the scenes, of course, the final result was that Edward, unwilling to accept that advice and not marry Wallis and also unwilling to foment the crisis, decided to abdicate in order to marry her.

The Prime Minister, in British constitutional theory, is the king’s (or queen’s) principal adviser. If the king doesn’t take his advice, this means that the PM does not enjoy the confidence of the King. And since you cannot be an effective adviser to someone who has no confidence in the advice you give, a PM in this position will resign.

This looks unfortunate for the PM, but it’s even worse for the king. If the PM who has resigned still enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons - i.e. if he is still in command of his party - it is politically impossible for anyone else to function effectively as PM. This leaves the king - and the country - without a PM.

The upshot of all this is that, if the PM advises the king to do something that the king is not willing to do, one of them must go. And, as the 1936 case shows, it’s likely to be the king.

If you’ve seen the film The Queen with Helen Mirren, which deals with the crisis facing the royal family immediately after the death of Diana Spencer, there’s a pivotal scene which touches on this. The Queen is still closeted at Balmoral with her family, and at a certain point Tony Blair - the PM - telephones her to say that he’s been thinking very carefully about what to do, and he feels he must advise her to return to London. What he is saying there is that, if she does not return to London, he will resign. It’s difficult to understand the effect this conversation has on the Queen if you don’t appreciate that subtext.

All of this, of course, makes Prime Ministers careful about what advice they give to the Queen, in cases where the Queen might find the advice unwelcome or distasteful.

I don’t doubt that the Queen would have taken Blair’s advice very seriously. However, I don’t believe for a moment that Blair would have resigned if the advice wasn’t taken, or that the Queen would have believed he would.

It would have been political suicide for Blair to resign over such a thing. The King proposing to marry a Catholic divorcee in 1936 is one thing, but the Queen deciding to remain at one residence or another during a family crisis is quite another. Blair would have made himself look a petty idiot to have made a big deal of the issue.

Nitpick: Wallis Simpson wasn’t a Catholic. She had been confirmed and first married in an Episcopal church, so she was at least nominally an Episcopalian and hence in communion with the Church of England. Her religion was never an issue: her divorces and her adultery were.

Sorry, confusing myself there.

The point is, Blair didn’t have to give her any advice at all. He could remain silent, or he could have a conversation with her in which he made “suggestions” or invited her to “consider” certain matters or certain courses of action. But once the PM says “I advise your majesty to do such-and-such”, then he is elevating it into a matter of confidence. “Advise” is not a word that Prime Ministers lightly use to monarchs.

(Assuming, of course, that the film was accurate in suggesting that Blair advised the Queen to return to London) Blair knew that there was no question of his actually having to resign over this. It is unthinkable that the Queen would allow a PM to resign in order to indulge her desire to be at Balmoral rather than Buckingham Palace. It was a moral certainty that his advice would be accepted, and the worst risk that Blair faced was the Queen’s resentment at his offering advice on this subject at all, given its personal dimension for her. And, in the film, the advice works out well for the Queen, and she recognises this, so any resentment she might initially have felt dissipated quickly.

It’s interesting, unanswerable and certainly veering into debate, but I wonder if this is actually true. It’s very difficult to over state the strangeness, the ‘emotion’ (genuine or tabloid-created) and the hagiography even that early after Diana’s death. This assuredly wasn’t a family crisis, it was presented to the public as a national issue and we came close to open criticism and castigation of the monarch for the first time. Generally I think that these events were good for perception of Tony Blair, who was already riding high in popularity, although of course he squandered that popularity eventually. If it had come to an ultimatum like this, I’m not at all sure Blair would have been risking his career as you suggest.

Actually, Blair did what he did exactly because what he perceived and what the queen had failed to perceive at that time regarding the public sentiment. The public mood was turning against the monarchy and he was doing what he thought was necessary to stem that tide. Not only was he confident that he wouldn’t have had to resign, but he also could have been fairly confident that any public discussion of the disagreement between him and the queen on this point would have come out in his favor.

So let me get this straight. When a PM “advises” a monarch to do something, what they’re really saying is “This is an ultimatum. It’s either you or me, pal.” Then they go to battle in the court of public opinion who either elects the opposition or overthrows the monarch. If the public wants the same party but backs the monarch, then the party effectively fires the PM, who has obviously lost their confidence.

Do I have that right? So when a PM resigns in protest, he’s actually betting he’ll get reelected?

By analogy, is this like if the President orders the VP to do something important and he refuses, like a ‘Marbury v. Madison’ situation? One of them would have to resign or face removal via Congress, i.e. the people?

That’s pretty much it; it’s also a norm in many European countries that major policy changes and the resolution of political crises will take place before the public in a general election. Whoever wins gets to take over.

Chances are, if the monarch ever defied long-standing constitutional convention and publically backed a political policy, public opinion would be so outraged as to demand the monarch’s abdication even if they generally agreed with their view. It’s not the monarch’s job to give voice to political opinions.

I don’t think the president would ever resign in that situation. He’s certainly not compelled to. It doesn’t matter if the VP defies the president, at least up to the point where he might be impeached by Congress.

However, Congress theoretically isn’t supposed to impeach anyone except for treason, bribery, and “high crimes”. Mere willful incompetence isn’t on the list.

Yeah, I don’t see any parallels with the vice presidential situation. The vice president has only one source of constitutional authority – presidency of the Senate – and it’s a source of authority independent of the president. I don’t think the president has any constitutional authority to give instructions to the vice president on how to carry out that function.

As for any other tasks that the vice president might undertake, it’s completely at the whim of the president and such assignments might be revoked at will by the president. But I don’t see any reason why anyone would have to resign. It’s not unheard of in our history for there to be a vice president who has essentially nothing to do.

Edward VII handled this sort of thing better.

The VP is not subordinate to the President; both being duly elected Constitutional officers. There is no legal requirement that the VP do anything the President says, and the President can not fire the VP. As a practical matter, VPs generally toe the line.

The case with cabinet officers is different. Unlike in a parliamentary system, cabinet officers in the American system are appointed by the President and are entirely separate from the legislature, and they can be fired at will.

Yeah, Wallis wasn’t just divorced; she was twice divorced and both ex-husbands were still alive. Actually she began her affair with Edward while still married to Simpson. She was in the process of divorcing him while the scandal broke and the government was terrified of something happing like her divorce not being granted & the King being named in court as her lover (highly unlikely since this was a “manufactured divorce” & both Simpsons were in colusion).

It wasn’t just that Baldwin threatened to resign either. The Opposition wasn’t willing (or able absent an election) to step forward and form a government. It would’ve created a constitution crisis graver than anything since James II was [del]deposed[/del] deemed to have abdicated.

99.9% of the time it’s not like that at all. The PM is the leader of the majority party (or coalition) in the House of Commons, and the monarch accepts that, under the central constitutional convention of the Westminster system, that majority has the right to have its policies carried out via its ministers, who are appointed by the monarch because they belong to that majority.

In effect the House of Commons is like the Electoral College in the United States, and elects the head of government, except that:
(1) it continues to meet until the next general election is called;
(2) its members (including opposition members) can continually review the performance of the PM and the ministry; and
(3) it can effectively dismiss the PM if the PM loses majority support (which can happen because some members change their minds, or because the government party loses enough by-elections).

Formally, the Prime Minister has no power at all, and the monarch has all the powers of the executive government; but in reality it’s the other way round. Why this is so is because of a system that has evolved over roughly the last 360 years.

Back when you had monarchs like Elizabeth I and James I and VI, there was no prime minister, the monarch really did exercise the executive power, but the Parliament did have two important powers: only it could impose taxes on the people, and only it could appropriate money from those taxes to supply the needs of the monarch’s government. But things were simpler then: the government didn’t need so much money, and much of the time the monarch could carry on without tax money coming via the Parliament. Often it was only when the monarch wanted to go to war that he/she might tell Parliament something like, “Those damned Dutch are causing problems again: I need to teach them a lesson, and I need money to build and supply ships to do that, so please raise some taxes to pay for the Roya Navy.”

However over the years the Parliament – and particularly the House of Commons – realised that because it controlled the tax money it therefore could control the monarch. The House of Commons also had the moral authority, particularly after the reforms of the 19th century extending voting to all adult male subjects: it was the voice of the people, while the monarch was just there because of an accident of birth. And even that accident of birth was controlled by the Parliament, which could say things like “No Catholics for monarch” or “Only descendants of the Electress Sophia for monarch.”

Yes, the monarch has a “nuclear option”. They can refuse to assent to any law; they can remove the Prime Minister, they can dissolve parliament and call an election.

The major irsk is that if the king/queen does so, they better be sure the people are overwhelmingly on their side and will stay so. Nothing gets the desire for reform (i.e. delete the monarchy for the equation) like being told what the government shall do by an unelected person.

The queen is however, the ultimate roadblock in any ruling party’s decision to do whatever the hell it wants. If they opt for a massively unpopular action for no good reason, the queen may block it. However, she had better be very very very sure it is widely unpopular to all factions. Plus, if the monarch starts making a habit of this, then the people may become wary of being governed that way. OTOH, because even though the threat is there, the trigger threshhold is very high - many politicians like the idea that it is there as a possible backstop to the other party’s extremists.

It’s a giant game of bluff with very high stakes.