Boris Johnson had been prime minister for three months. He had appointed his Cabinet. It included Jacob Rees-Mogg as home secretary, Michael Gove as chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt as foreign secretary and, in a shock sop to those who might be inclined to swither about their vote on the Brexit issue, Nigel Farage as minister without portfolio. Farage wasn't an elected MP, but Johnson found a loophole that enabled him to appoint Farage as a 'special secretary' to the Cabinet.
The Brexit deadline was looming in 10 days. It was Monday 21 October. Prime Minister Johnson asked for a private audience with the 93-year-old Queen. At 4pm that afternoon, a time carefully calculated to miss the deadlines for the evening newspapers and media, he was ushered in to the Queen's drawing room. Johnson had brushed his hair. He was wearing an unusually well-tailored suit, a white shirt and a black tie with the distinctive, diagonal, blue stripes of his old school, Eton.
'Good afternoon, prime minister.' The Queen rose from her chair and extended her arm to indicate the empty chair on the far side of the Victorian tea-table that stood next to her.
Prime Minister Johnson waited for the Queen to take her seat before sitting down himself.
'I am so glad you have come Mr Johnson. You have been prime minister now for nearly three months, and this is only the second time I have had the pleasure of an official audience like this.'
Boris Johnson coughed, turning his head to one side. 'I have been very busy Your Majesty,' he said.
'Yes,' said the Queen, remembering the day when he had come to the palace 'to kiss hands on his appointment as prime minister', as the court circular had put it. 'How are the Brexit negotiations coming along?'
'They are not easy Your Majesty. They have taken up almost all my time. The continentals are very difficult to deal with.'
'That's what they say about you,' said the Queen.
The comment reminded Prime Minister Johnson that the House of Windsor was in fact the 20th-century replacement of the original, Saxe Coburg and Gotha family name, which was the root of the modern British monarchy. The Queen probably still had cousins over there; uncles and aunts even. No doubt she was in receipt of plenty of opinions from family sources. He nodded, but said nothing.
'That man Farage you have appointed minister without portfolio,' she said. 'He's not a Member of Parliament. Surely you know you cannot do such a thing.'
'His advice is invaluable, Your Majesty. He has been a Member of the European Parliament for 20 years now; elected by the people of this country – and I can
do such a thing. I have put Nigel's name forward for appointment to the House of Lords as a life peer.'
There are few people in Britain more knowledgeable in constitutional matters than the Queen. The news of Farage's appointment had come as a surprise to her, and yet she knew Boris Johnson was correct. If her prime minister could get the House of Lords Appointments Commission to agree to approve Nigel Farage as a peer, he would be constitutionally and legally entitled to serve in Johnson's Cabinet. The appointment could be confirmed quite quickly; but even if it were to take time, Farage could serve for months in her government's Cabinet before his appointment would provoke a constitutional crisis.
The Queen frowned. 'But surely the Lords would not approve him to a peerage. The man has no qualifications or experience. Wasn't he a bookie of some sort?'
'A commodities broker,' said Johnson smoothly. 'His experience of European affairs and parliamentary procedures is invaluable. I need him in my Cabinet.'
The Queen felt an urgent need to change the subject. 'What about Scotland?' she said.
'What about it, your Majesty?'
'I am concerned,' she said. 'They keep talking about seceding; about another independence referendum.'
'They'll never stop talking about it,' said Johnson. 'It won't matter what we do at Westminster.'
'Well, what if they win the referendum next time?'
'They won't win it,' said Johnson. 'Far too many English people live up there now for it to pass. They may not want to live down here, but they don't want to see the ties severed with you, with England. Besides we will never give them permission to hold another referendum. Without parliamentary permission no successful referendum will have legal veracity.'
The Queen was thinking: smarter than I thought. More devious too.
'Boris,' she said.
'Yes, Your Majesty?'
'It's an odd name for an Englishman don't you think?'
'What is?' Boris's face flushed. 'Your Majesty,' he added.
'Boris,' said Elizabeth. 'It's a Russian name isn't it?'
'Not really,' he said. He remembered the Queen's love of tennis, and her penchant for watching old, late-night horror films. 'Boris Becker. Boris Karloff. Lots of people are named Boris.'
'I don't know of any other Englishmen who are called Boris,' she said. 'Those two are German and American.'
'Becker, yes,' said the prime minister. 'But Boris Karloff was an Englishman. His real name was Pratt. Henry Pratt.'
'It's one of the most popular names for puppies,' said Queen Elizabeth. 'Has been for years now. Cats too,' she added. She looked at him again, lowering her head to look over the silver rims of her pince nez. 'But you haven't answered my question prime minister.'
'I thought you liked dogs. I'm impressed by your knowledge of cat names.'
'I beg your pardon,' said the Queen. Deflection, he was good at that – and she did not like being interrupted – but then, she had not been to Eton. No women had.
'I thought you were a dog person,' Boris said, patiently.
The Queen took off her spectacles. 'It's a Russian name,' she said. 'Boris. Why did your parents christen you Boris? Were they communists?' She stared at him, leaning forward in her straight-backed chair. 'They did christen you didn't they? Church of England? They were officially still atheist when you were born in 1964, weren't they?'
'The Russians,' said the Queen.
'I don't know,' said her prime minister.
'Good heavens man! You don't know. You were foreign secretary for goodness sake. Didn't you have to know your history?'
'David appointed me to that position,' said Boris.
'David Cameron. He was at school with me. He was prime minister before I was.'
'Before Theresa was,' corrected the Queen. 'Theresa appointed you foreign secretary.' Slippery too, she thought; keeps throwing me off with non sequiturs.
'Why are you here?' she said.
Boris brushed his hand through his hair. Without blinking, he said: 'I wish to prorogue parliament.'
'You need my permission,' she said; all sharp and focused. 'And I expect you to give it,' said Boris. 'I don't think I have to bring up the conventions that accompany this request, or the precedents. My request is simply a formality, and I have come here to observe it.'
'Precedents Mr Johnson? You're not going to unearth January 1649, are you? King Charles I? Surely you're not issuing a veiled threat.'
The prime minister laughed, but it was a nervous laugh, and a tic had appeared on the upper lid of his left eye. 'Of course not, Your Majesty,' he said. 'That's just silly.' He coughed, realising what he had said.
'All right,' said the Queen – who had prepared well for Boris Johnson's request. 'My response is to ask you prime minister, first of all, to reconsider.'
Boris Johnson shook his head, splattering his blond hair across his sweat-streaked forehead. 'I have considered it, Your Majesty,' he said. 'Long and hard, over many sleepless nights.'
The Queen didn't believe a word of it, but continued. 'In that case I would ask you to withdraw your request.'
The prime minister shook his head a second time. Most of the blond forelocks remained stuck to his perspiring brow, revealing a surprising degree of recession in Johnson’s hairline. 'No,' he said. 'I will not withdraw. Shall not.'
'In that case,' said Elizabeth again, 'I wish to seek the advice of the Privy Council before I give you my answer.' She looked at the prime minister and saw with great clarity a small boy from a relatively un-enterprising, middle-English family; a small boy wearing black, pin-striped trousers, a white shirt, and a thin white tie. She touched a discreet button under the table at her side, and stood up to signify that the interview was at an end. The study door opened immediately and a large footman took two steps into the room.
'Yes, Your Majesty?'
'The prime minister is leaving, Mr Smythe. Will you see him out please?' She turned and stepped to a door in the opposite wall of her study, opened it, and left the room.
Boris Johnson stood, and bowed his head to his departing Queen's back. God, he thought, as Smythe escorted him from the room. Bercow's part of the Privy Council, and Blair, Gordon Brown, Vince Cable, and a whole slew of judges who don't like people who occasionally embellish the truth. Kenneth Clarke, Chilcot, George Robertson, Camilla and Charles, Dodds, Trimble and Arlene Foster from Ulster, Major and Mandelson, Janet Royal, who won't care much for my marital scrapes, Waldegrave and both the Millibands, Charlie Falconer, Peter Hain, Hammond for God's sake, Hesseltine and Hailsham, Philip, Rifkind and Portillo who don't like me either, Kinnock and Letwin, Luce – the former governor of Gibraltar, which will be royally screwed when we leave. MacLeish, Steel, Sturgeon and Salmond from Scotland, Soames and Soubry, Jack Straw, Rory Stewart, Shirley Williams and 100 more in that stacked deck.
None of them liked him. Even Gove is on it; Gove, who wouldn't hesitate to stick the knife in whether he's in my Cabinet or not. Even Hunt is on it! Then Boris's heart skipped as he remembered – But I too am a member of the Queen's Privy Council. A second later he realised he had failed to attend any of the meetings to which he had been invited since his appointment to that august body in July 2016.