Act of assent

Was Her Majesty waiting behind the scenes in Westminster, ready to provide her Royal Assent to the EU Withdrawal Act? The reality is more mundane

Counterpoints

Brexit has seen a number of parliamentary firsts, including the passage of the EU Withdrawal Act — a new law to force the Government to ask for an extension to the Article 50 process proposed by backbenchers and agreed by Parliament against the government’s wishes. Despite the argument made by some lawyers that ministers could advise the Queen not to agree to such a law, it received Royal Assent late at night, having passed through Parliament unusually rapidly, in just three sitting days. So was Her Majesty waiting behind the scenes in the Palace of Westminster, ready to provide her Royal Assent? The reality is more mundane, reflecting the monarch’s now ceremonial role in law-making. While, in theory, the Queen could decide to give her Royal Assent to a bill in person, the last monarch to choose to do so was Queen Victoria in 1854. Today — under the terms of the Royal Assent Act 1967 — the Queen can give her assent in writing once a bill has completed all its stages in the Commons and the Lords.

This is what happened last month. Once the Speaker and Lord Speaker received the signed “letters patent” indicating the Queen’s assent, they each made a simple statement to their respective Houses. The new law formally came into effect shortly after 11pm, at the moment the Commons Speaker interrupted the last debate of the day to let MPs know of the Queen’s decision.

The swift granting of Royal Assent meant that the Act’s provisions could come into effect the following day — and forced the government to make a statement on Tuesday about the length of the Article 50 extension it would seek.

This is not the only way Royal Assent can be given today. At the end of the parliamentary year, a more elaborate parliamentary ceremony is usually conducted so that assent can be granted to the series of Acts that have completed their passage. Parliamentarians appointed by the Queen as Lords Commissioners grant assent on her behalf, and a senior Lords official speaking in Anglo-Norman Law French informs the two Houses that “La Reine le vault” (“The Queen wills it”).

The EU Council’s decision to offer the UK an extension on the Article 50 process until October 31 has relieved the immediate pressure on our conflicted Parliament. But if the UK is to leave with its statute book prepared, the Queen will need to have given her assent to several more key pieces of legislation before the Article 50 deadline finally expires.