6 minute read
24 Sep 2019
12:15 pm

Huge blow to Boris Johnson as court rules he unlawfully suspended UK parliament


The prime minister had earlier been heavily criticised for a decision that had been described as an act against democracy.

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacting as he is asked by Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (unseen) about his previous use of language regarding ethnic minorities, and asking him to order an inquiry into Islamophobia within the Conservative party, during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions session in the House of Commons in London on September 4, 2019. Picture: PRU / AFP

Tuesday’s ruling by the UK Supreme Court, which found Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament unlawful, is a humiliating blow for the prime minister and has momentous implications for Britain’s constitutional order.

Johnson announced the behind-closed-doors suspension decision — known as a prorogation — on August 28 while most MPs were still away on their summer holidays.

It caused widespread outrage as it was widely interpreted as a bid to limit the scope for MPs to have a say on Johnson’s hardline Brexit strategy.

Multiple legal challenges were announced almost immediately, culminating in Tuesday’s ruling by the highest court in the country.

Here is a rundown of the main questions it raises:

What did the court decide?

The court’s 11 judges decided first of all that they had the power to issue a ruling since “the courts have exercised a supervisory jurisdiction over the lawfulness of acts of the government for centuries”.

It then ruled that Johnson’s decision was “unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification”.

It said the advice that Johnson had given to Queen Elizabeth II, who as head of state formally issued the prorogation order, was “unlawful, void and of no effect”.

Why is this significant?

Suspending parliament was a key part of Johnson’s plan to deliver Brexit by October 31, even though MPs managed — in the short time they were able to meet after their summer break — to pass a law that could undermine this.

The decision also sets precedent, meaning that Johnson will face legal difficulties in trying to suspend parliament again. In constitutional terms, it means that the court’s powers to allow parliament to have its say are stronger than an order issued by Queen Elizabeth II.

The court said that the circumstances were “exceptional” because of the looming prospect of Brexit, calling it a “fundamental change” for the country.

Parliament “has a right to have a voice in how that change comes about”.

When will parliament convene?

The ruling said the prorogation order was “void and of no effect” and that it was up to House of Commons speaker John Bercow and House of Lords speaker Norman Fowler to decide when to meet “as soon as possible”.

Bercow has asked parliamentary authorities to make preparations for MPs to resume their proceedings from 1030 GMT on Wednesday.

He said the judges had “vindicated the right and duty of parliament to meet at this crucial time to scrutinise the executive and hold ministers to account”.

The court said it was “not clear” whether any steps would be required from Johnson but if they were, “the court is pleased that his counsel have told the court that he will take all necessary steps to comply with the terms of any declaration made by this court”.

Will Boris Johnson resign?

The ruling is a huge embarrassment for Johnson, who has insisted his suspension of parliament was entirely legal because it was time for a new session to deal with his ambitious domestic agenda.

But it is unlikely the prime minister, who has only been in power since July, will step down.

Although his position in parliament is weak, opinion polls suggest his battles with MPs and judges over Brexit may actually be making him more popular with voters.

What next for Brexit?

It is not yet clear what impact it will have for Brexit. Here are some possible scenarios for the coming weeks:

Johnson resigns

The judges unanimously ruled that Johnson acted unlawfully in suspending parliament for five weeks in the run-up to Britain’s scheduled exit from the European Union on October 31.

In a damning verdict, they said the lengthy suspension “had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions”.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called on Johnson to “consider his position”, remarks echoed by other political figures.

However, Johnson has only been in office since July and is likely to resist such calls.

Although his position in parliament is weak, opinion polls suggest his battles with MPs over Brexit are actually making him more popular with voters.

Brexit delay

Britain will leave the EU on October 31 unless it asks the bloc to delay, and the leaders of the other 27 member states agree.

Johnson wants to keep this date, but many MPs fear his threat to leave without agreeing divorce terms with Brussels would cause huge disruption.

Earlier this month, they passed a law that would force Johnson to request a three-month delay to Brexit to January 31, 2020, with the option of further delays.

This would take effect if the prime minister has failed to get a divorce deal or somehow persuaded MPs to back a “no deal” exit by October 19.

The law would apply whether or not Johnson remains.

Brexit deal

Johnson could still keep to the October 31 deadline if he manages to secure a deal with the EU that wins the approval of a majority of MPs — but it is a huge task.

His predecessor Theresa May struck exit terms with Brussels last year but MPs rejected them three times.

EU leaders have accused Johnson’s government of failing to come up with any concrete alternative plans.

Johnson had hoped his threat to walk away without a deal would persuade them to renegotiate.

However, he says he believes an agreement is still possible before a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on October 17-18, in time to leave on October 31.

‘No deal’ Brexit

Johnson has said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit, more than three years after Britons narrowly voted in a referendum to leave the EU.

Ministers have indicated they will look for loopholes in the MPs’ legislation in order to allow a “no deal” exit, while insisting they will uphold the law.

Johnson could resign rather than ask for a delay, but someone — perhaps a civil servant, or an opposition politician — would have to make the request.

There is a chance that EU leaders tire of Britain’s prevarication and refuse to delay Brexit, but they do not want to be blamed for a chaotic divorce.

Early election

Johnson inherited a wafer-thin majority in the House of Commons, but lost this when he expelled 21 of his Conservative MPs who rebelled over the “no deal” law.

He called for an election before October 31 to resolve the impasse, but opposition parties refused to support him and the motion failed.

Labour said it would only back an election once “no deal” was off the table, with commentators looking towards a poll in November or December.

Johnson cannot trigger an election simply by resigning — he needs the support of two-thirds of the Commons.

No Brexit at all?

If Johnson wins a subsequent election, or can forge a pact with the eurosceptic Brexit Party, he could still force through a “no deal” divorce in the months ahead.

If Labour wins, the party has promised to hold a new referendum, with an option to remain in the European Union — which could see Brexit cancelled.

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