Prime minister Boris Johnson asked the Queen for authorisation to suspend parliament – a political act called prorogation – for five weeks from September, and the Queen approved.
The move is aimed at limiting the time MPs will have to block a no-deal Brexit: parliament will sit from September 3 to September 10, then return to Westminster on October 14– only 17 days before the October 31 Brexit deadline given by the EU last March.
This has predictably angered just about everybody. Speaker of the House John Bercow has called Johnson’s move a “constitutional outrage” with the purpose to “stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty”.
Labour leader and leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn has said Johnson’s “reckless” government is threatening the British democracy, and has written to the Queen to request a meeting with her. According to Ed Davey MP, of the Liberal Democrats, this is a “coup d’état”; Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said the day will “go down in history as a dark one for British democracy”, while Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price has said it’s time for Wales to leave Britain’s “sham of democracy” and start building its own.
“‘Taking back control’ has never looked so sinister,” Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament co-ordinator on Brexit has said. And away from the political class, more than 700,000 people, at the time of writing, have signed an official petition calling for parliament not to be prorogued.
Prorogation, unlike recess which is voted on by parliament, is a decision process that excludes the Houses. Parliament usually goes on recess for three weeks between September and October for party conference season (although there has been talk to cancel recess this year due to the Brexit deadline’s urgency). Jon Worth, a lecturer at the College of Europe who has mapped all the possible Brexit routes ahead in incredible detail, says that a five-week prorogation would be longer than any in modern times.
Meanwhile, the Brexit clock, kindly reset in March by EU Council president Donald Tusk, who gave Britain a six-months extension and asked “not to waste this time”, is still ticking, and these manoeuvres aren’t offering a solution to the prospect of the UK crashing out on Halloween.
So… what now? Well, no one knows for sure: “It’s all about what opposition parties decide to do next Tuesday when parliament reopens”, Carl Gardner, a lawyer who formerly worked for the UK government, says. Let’s consider our options.
Scenario A: The opposition calls for a no-confidence vote
“Johnson is trying to make it very difficult for MPs to do anything except a vote of no confidence,” Gardner says. The prime minister is limiting parliament’s time to legislate, making them furious and therefore more likely to call a confidence vote against him.
As it stands, this seems to be Johnson’s tactic: the government is cutting all other avenues, indeed forcing parliament to force a no-confidence vote. “Boris Johnson doesn’t want to call for an election himself,” Worth says, but is using prorogation to “whip up a storm” that could lead to one.
If such a vote succeeds under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, a government can be formed within 14 days, if there is a majority for it. An interim government led by Corbyn or someone else could theoretically be formed. Its brief would be limited: call for an extension to the Brexit deadline and then for a general election. (Johnson may also regain parliament’s confidence by softening his stance). If no government can be formed, Johnson will call for a general election.
Either way, it’s election time! An election campaign takes five to six weeks. Johnson could ask for an extension to the Brexit deadline, as the EU has said another referendum or an election would be a reason to grant an extension. Worth thinks an election is unlikely to be held “during no deal”, that is over the October 31 deadline, because of the consequences on the moderate Conservative vote – but that wouldn’t be the first time Johnson decides to take risks.
He could just decide to do nothing, let the UK fall out of the EU automatically on October 31 and then reap the votes of pro-Brexit Conservatives and Brexit Party voters. An election could change everything, or change nothing at all. If the Conservatives win a majority, Johnson will yield more power in his party and beyond. If Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens or a combination of them wins, the new government will ask for an extension, and then either try to avoid no deal at all cost but keep Brexiting (Labour, probably), or call for another referendum (the Lib Dems, in the view to stop Brexit). If the Brexit Party wins it’s, of course, no deal.
If the no-confidence vote fails, it’s constitutional crisis time. Someone else (a court case – see scenario C) could still try to prevent prorogation, but parliament will most likely be out of time to legislate against no-deal, and with the ball in Johnson’s camp, no-deal will still be in the picture, as per his “do or die” pronouncement.
Scenario B: Parliament tries to legislate against no-deal
Parliament has very little time, but the opposition could decide to bet on using it to pass legislation that would block no-deal. That was indeed the agreed plan as of Tuesday. The legislative route, Worth says, is now “a bit more likely to succeed,” because there are “more rebels” in parliament than when a similar bill was rejected in March, due to “all the people Johnson has annoyed or sacked” – for instance former chancellor Philip Hammond.
If legislation succeeds there are many options: Johnson can have a vote on Theresa May’s deal, go back to the EU to ask for an extension, or call for an election, all of which can still lead to a vote of no confidence or no-deal.
To Laurence Whitehead, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield College, the only way left for MPs is to agree to vote to revoke Article 50. “There wasn’t a majority for that in parliament on Tuesday,” he says, but the frustration caused by Johnson’s prorogation move may have changed that.
If parliament fails to legislate against no-deal see “constitutional crisis” above.
Scenario C: Someone else tries to block the suspension of parliament
Could a Scottish court provide an injunction to prevent prorogation of parliament? A group of cross-party MPs and peers have gone to Edinburgh’s Court of Session to block the prorogation of parliament, Carl Gardner says. “I wouldn’t put great hope in this, but if it succeeded, it would provide a court order preventing this.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have also already signed a petition against prorogation, which could – maybe, possibly, potentially – have some impact on how parties behave. It is still unlikely though.
If it succeeds: Parliament can legislate for all of September and October if it wishes to cancel recess. Down-the-road possibilities still include a no-confidence vote, an election or no-deal.
If it fails: An election, a vote of no confidence, a constitutional crisis, or all three, are still on the cards, and most lead to no-deal at this point. Whitehead says: “We are in a mess.”
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