Section 3 of the Treason Felony Act 1848 says:

If any person whatsoever shall, within the United Kingdom or without, compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend to deprive or depose our Most Gracious Lady the Queen, from the style, honour, or royal name of the imperial crown of the United Kingdom, or of any other of her Majesty’s dominions and countries, or to levy war against her Majesty, within any part of the United Kingdom, in order by force or constraint to compel her to change her measures or counsels, or in order to put any force or constraint upon or in order to intimidate or overawe both Houses or either House of Parliament, or to move or stir any foreigner or stranger with force to invade the United Kingdom or any other of her Majesty’s dominions or countries under the obeisance of her Majesty, and such compassings, imaginations, inventions, devices, or intentions, or any of them, shall express, utter, or declare, by publishing any printing or writing or by any overt act or deed, every person so offending shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be transported beyond the seas for the term or his or her natural life.

The Prime Minister has written to claim of his own Withdrawal Agreement from the EU:

We are being told that the EU will not only impose tariffs on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but that they might actually stop the transport of food products from GB to NI.

I have to say that we never seriously believed that the EU would be willing to use a treaty, negotiated in good faith, to blockade one part of the UK, to cut it off, or that they would actually threaten to destroy the economic and territorial integrity of the UK.

He goes on to mix language such as "actively undermining the Union of our country" and "we cannot leave the theoretical power to carve up our country – to divide it – in the hands of an international organisation." with remarks describing the EU as "friends".

The Prime Minister was both personally responsible for the very agreement he is now complaining about, and also responsible for it being pushed through Parliament at speed and with less oversight than would be normal for such an agreement. Many of the issues now being considered problematic were raised not only at the time, but years earlier.

My question is:

Do the Prime Minister's current statements mean that his previous actions in signing the Withdrawal Agreement were threatening to "deprive" the monarch of her territory, and that by pushing it through Parliament at speed and in the manner in which he did, that he "intimidated or overawed" at least one of those Houses in this regard?

As I have no legal training, I cannot trust my own interpretation of the Act: my interpretation would mean all republicans would be in prison for life, which clearly doesn't happen.

I am not asking if the Withdrawal Agreement actually has the effect that the Prime Minister claims it has, but rather what would be true if one assumes it has the effect that the Prime Minister claims it has.

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    Did not the Queen herself approve the Withdrawal Agreement, by giving Royal Assent to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020? How can it be treasonous if it's in accordance with the policy she enacted (on the advice of her ministers)? Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 0:20
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    Don't forget the legal fiction in the UK's system that everything done by the Prime Minister or the Government is actually being done by the Queen, who has merely chosen to act on the advice of her ministers. Likewise, should a republican government come into power, they would not depose the Queen; they would advise her to disestablish the monarchy and abdicate, and she would almost certainly do it. Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 0:23
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    By the way, the offenses described in the cited act are technically not treason but the separate category of treason felony. Apparently these were carved out from the treason statute in 1848 so that the punishment could be reduced from death to transportation. (This has now been converted to life imprisonment, though it's still amusing to imagine Boris Johnson being sent off to Australia...) See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treason_Felony_Act_1848 Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 16:30

1 Answer 1


Do the Prime Minister's current statements mean that his previous actions in signing the Withdrawal Agreement were threatening to "deprive" the monarch of her territory, and that by pushing it through Parliament at speed and in the manner in which he did, that he "intimidated or overawed" at least one of those Houses in this regard?

No. The Queen will not be "deprived" of any of her territory. She is still Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has not reunified with Ireland, nor has Scotland declared independence and also removed her as Head of State.

He also did not "intimidate or overawe" at least one of the Houses. This is for two reasons:

  1. The prime minister has political and legal legitimacy through the holding of a (sometimes substantial) majority in the Commons. If the Act passes the Commons, it will be because the prime minister enjoys the support of the MPs on their side (or at least a majority of MPs in the House, e.g. the Tory-DUP agreement of recent years).

  2. Under the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords will not block any legislation that was promised in a Government's election manifesto. While the prime minister did not enter office on the back of a General Election when he agreed the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, the subsequent amending and implementing Act of 2020 was mentioned in the Government's election manifesto in December 2019 and therefore the Lords will not block such legislation.

Given these two facts, it is almost impossible to declare that either House were "intimidated or overawed". For example, the prime minister did not hold a gun to the heads of his MPs, he did not surround the House of Lords with an army until they voted the way he wanted them to. The fact that the Commons willingly supported his legislative programme, and by convention the Lords didn't block it, is evidence that the prime minister and his government enjoys political, and subsequently legal, legitimacy.

In any event, the Queen cannot commit treason against herself. Anything done on the advice of her ministers cannot, on the face of it, constitute treason.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister has not, on the facts, done anything that constitutes treason. Even if he were to technically commit treason by the letter of the Act somehow, the matter would have to be proven beyond reasonable doubt and it is highly likely that all but the most obvious and egregious examples would not meet the threshold for prosecution.

For example, it would almost certainly not be in the public interest to prosecute a prime minister for delivering on their legitimate policy aims in line with the legal (correct) functioning of our legislative system.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine any court agreeing that such activities are treason when the relevant Acts passed both Houses, and the Government of the day had legitimacy in the Commons with a substantial majority after a General Election in which the legislation formed a key manifesto commitment, and the Salisbury Convention means that the Lords didn't oppose it; they would likely hold that such activities are the intended outcome of our current democratic system.

I cannot think of any examples (barring something like murdering the monarch) where a sitting prime minister could conceivably be charged with treason. Even advising the Queen to abdicate would not constitute treason, provided that the necessary Act had passed in both Houses. Perhaps it might be treason if the prime minister advised so without any legislation in place, but that would seem more of a political matter for Parliament to deal with in reality.

I suppose it is possible that if a prime minister advised the Queen to abdicate without the legitimate consent of Parliament (as expressed through the passing of legislation), it is possible that they would be removed from office if a no-confidence motion was passed by the Commons and then they might be prosecuted, but it seems most unlikely.

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    "I cannot think of any examples where a sitting prime minister could conceivably be charged with treason." If the sitting PM were to murder the Queen, I think that would probably qualify.
    – cpast
    Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 1:41
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    Yes, I suppose it would be treason but they'd charge it as murder. Let me amend my answer to make that section clearer.
    – Matthew
    Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 1:50
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    Anyway, Scotland's declaring Independence wouldn't necessarily deprive the queen of any territory.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 2:31
  • @phoog Yeah, that's true. She could still be Head of State in an independent Scotland.
    – Matthew
    Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 14:14

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