It began Wednesday morning with a letter to MPs that was jovial in tone but barbed in meaning, and was followed in the afternoon by an emissary’s trip to see the Queen. By evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood accused by his opponents of having carried out a “very British coup.”
Mr. Johnson’s gambit – which saw him obtain the monarch’s approval to prorogue the House of Commons and House of Lords for five weeks this fall – further widened the country’s already yawning political divide and advanced, yet again, the chances of a chaotic no-deal exit from the European Union on Oct. 31.
It will be the longest suspension of the “Mother of Parliaments” since the Second World War. MPs will sit for only a few days after returning from their summer break on Sept. 3, then Parliament will be suspended some time during the week beginning Sept. 9 until Oct. 14, barely two weeks before the deadline for Brexit.
The move drew condemnations from sources as scrupulous as the Hansard Society, an independent parliamentary research institute, which called it an “affront to parliamentary democracy,” and John Bercow, the neutral Speaker of the House of Commons, who called it “a constitutional outrage.” Mr. Bercow said it would limit Parliament’s ability to properly debate at “one of the most challenging periods in our nation’s history.”
Others used even more dramatic language, with several opposition MPs suggesting Mr. Johnson had started the country down a path toward autocratic rule. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose party seeks Scotland’s independence from Britain, told the BBC that if Mr. Johnson was allowed to carry out his plan, Wednesday would “go down in history as the day U.K. democracy died.”
Mr. Johnson says he is trying to carry out the will of the people as expressed by a 2016 referendum in which 52 per cent of the country voted in favour of Brexit – a popular demand that he says has been thwarted by Parliament.
The question that lingers is whether MPs who say they are appalled by Mr. Johnson’s actions can do anything to stop him.
The Prime Minister played his cards one by one on Wednesday. First came a morning press release announcing his intention to prorogue Parliament. Minutes later, Mr. Johnson’s office published the letter he had written to MPs, which began “Dear Colleague, I hope that you had an enjoyable and productive summer recess” before continuing on to accuse them of “filling time” during the last parliamentary session, and stalling on legislation that would implement Brexit. “This cannot continue,” he wrote.
By afternoon – and while opposition MPs were still drafting their furious responses to Mr. Johnson’s morning shocks – Jacob Rees-Mogg, a close ally of the Prime Minister, had flown to visit the Queen at her summer residence in Balmoral Castle, in northern Scotland. A statement issued shortly afterward by the Royal Court affirmed that the monarch had given Mr. Johnson what he wanted.
The Queen’s agreement was no surprise – by tradition, she takes the Prime Minister’s advice on political matters – but it left the opposition sputtering over what to do next.
Mr. Johnson, who co-led the Leave campaign during the 2016 referendum but has yet to face a general election as party leader, told reporters on Wednesday that it was “completely untrue” that he was suspending Parliament in order to limit debate over Brexit.
In his letter to MPs, he said prorogation was needed so that his government could focus on preparations for his Queen’s Speech – the traditional opening session of Parliament – on Oct. 14. He promised to lay out legislation in the speech that would implement Britain’s withdrawal from Europe, as well as “a new bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda for the renewal of our country after Brexit.”
Mr. Johnson became Prime Minister after a July 24 vote of the Conservative Party membership, succeeding Theresa May, who negotiated a Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels that was supposed to govern issues ranging from trade to travel after Britain’s departure from the EU. Ms. May resigned after her withdrawal deal was rejected three separate times by Parliament.
MPs have also resoundingly expressed their opposition to leaving the EU without a deal. But Mr. Johnson’s government and key European leaders now agree that a no-deal Brexit – something widely expected to cause trade and travel chaos – is an increasingly likely outcome.
Mr. Johnson says the Withdrawal Agreement must be altered, particularly the “Irish backstop,” a clause that would effectively keep Northern Ireland as part of the EU’s common market even after the rest of Britain exits. EU leaders, however, say the deal reached with Ms. May’s government is not up for renegotiation.
Mr. Johnson had favourable talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron last week, but time is short and Mr. Johnson remains committed to delivering Brexit “do or die” on Oct. 31.
Political analysts said Wednesday that the opposition had few ways of stopping Mr. Johnson’s parliamentary end-around. Chief among them would be passing a motion of no-confidence in Mr. Johnson’s government, since he lacks a functioning majority in the House of Commons.
Pro-European MPs would appear to have the numbers to topple Mr. Johnson’s government, with several prominent Conservatives expressing their fury at the prorogation plan on Wednesday. The sticking point remains who the opposition would choose to lead an interim government – one that would presumably ask the EU for an extension beyond Oct. 31, and govern until elections can be held.
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democratic Leader Jo Swinson both wrote to the Queen on Wednesday, requesting their own audiences to discuss the prorogation and Brexit.
Mr. Corbyn, as leader of the second-largest party in Parliament, would ordinarily stand to be named interim prime minister if Mr. Johnson is ousted. But Mr. Corbyn is considered to be just as divisive as Mr. Johnson. Ms. Swinson has said that her party wouldn’t support a no-confidence vote if it meant installing Mr. Corbyn, even temporarily, in 10 Downing.
Mr. Corbyn said Wednesday that his party would introduce legislation aimed at preventing prorogation as soon as Parliament returned next week. He said a no-confidence vote would follow “at some point.”
Several analysts said they believed Mr. Johnson’s intention was to provoke a no-confidence vote, and then to run a populist people-versus-Parliament election campaign against a divided opposition.
SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, August 28, 2019