It’s not quite proroguing Parliament, but the term is accurate enough. Boris Johnson has reportedly asked Queen Elizabeth to order Parliament to extend its normal recess for an additional five-week suspension. The prime minister insists that this is a normal procedure, but it would conveniently render Parliament powerless to stop a no-deal Brexit:
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Wednesday that a usual suspension of parliament would be extended until October 14, just two weeks before the U.K. is set to leave the European Union. The move enraged lawmakers, including many from Johnson’s own Conservative Party, who will have far less time to try and stop him delivering a “Brexit” without any agreement in place with the EU. …
It’s a calculated gamble by Johnson, a prime minister who wasafter a leadership crisis, spawned by internal divisions over Brexit. He consistently claims to have the backing of a majority of Britons, pointing to the result of the 2016 public referendum in which Brits voted to leave the EU. But many say a no-deal Brexit was never the outcome offered up by the “Leave” campaign, for which Johnson was a frontman.
With Parliament now set to be suspended from September 10 until October 14, pro-EU lawmakers and those who want to leave the union but only with an agreement for the divorce in place, will have just a handful of days to try and thwart Johnson. They could do so either by passing legislation to block a no-deal Brexit, or by unseating Johnson with a vote of no-confidence in his government.
The Washington Post calls it “proroguing,” a term which usually means dismissal rather than suspension. It’s close enough, however, at least it terms of what it buys Johnson for Brexit. By asking the Queen to delay her speech until October 14th, he takes a few weeks off the legislative calendar for Parliament. It leaves them sixteen days to act to block a no-deal Brexit — a time span which, under the rules, means no potential to act at all except possibly to rubber-stamp Johnson’s actions.
Just how much legislative time will they lose, though? Jessica Elgot provides more precise calculations, but also notes that the prorogation drops its own procedural twist into the mix:
In practice, MPs are only likely to lose between four and six sitting days in parliament, depending on which day parliament is prorogued on the second week of September. MPs would have been due to hold conference recess from September 12th until October 7th.
Given that MPs do not generally sit on most Fridays, it means MPs will not be able to sit that week for four days until the following Monday 14th October. They could also lose days in the second week of September, depending on what day parliament is prorogued in the week beginning September 9th.
However, one key new obstacle is that any legislation which is incomplete ahead of prorogation will fall, meaning MPs would have to pass any anti-no deal legislation in its entirety either before prorogation, or in the three weeks leading up until October 31st.
For American readers, it’s the equivalent of ending a session of Congress in the middle of the year and starting a new one. All of the legislation has to be restarted, with all its attendant procedural votes and committee actions requiring a do-over. The Guardian lays out the timing:
The proposed new timetable would leave MPs with a far narrower window to pass anti-no deal legislation, cutting it short by two weeks, with new dates likely to be:
- MPs returning on 3 September.
- A new spending review on 4 September.
- Parliament prorogued before party conferences on 12 September.
- Parliament returns for Queen’s speech on 14 October.
- The EU council meets on 17 October, potentially to agree any new Brexit deal.
The UK would be due to leave the EU on 31 October.
That leaves very little time for any kind of action. Even if Parliament passed a no-confidence vote, it would take two months to organize an election, assuming Johnson left quietly in the first place. That made the no-confidence option less likely to be used even before this move, but now it might get applied regardless of its impact on Brexit.
Thus far, the reviews have not been kind. While Johnson’s Brexit allies are thus far backing his move, some in his own party are erupting in anger. Former Tory minister Philip Hammond called it a “constitutional outrage” and “profoundly undemocratic”:
It would be a constitutional outrage if Parliament were prevented from holding the government to account at a time of national crisis. Profoundly undemocratic.
— Philip Hammond (@PhilipHammondUK) August 28, 2019
House of Commons speaker John Bercow used the same language:
Statement from Speaker’s Office 🚨🚨💥💥 pic.twitter.com/BGSYCcpxjB
— Jayne McCormack (@BBCJayneMcC) August 28, 2019
Across the aisle, the reaction is even worse. Jeremy Corbyn has written the Queen asking for a personal meeting to block Johnson’s move, while another Labour MP says he and his colleagues will refuse to leave Parliament:
If Boris shuts down Parliament to carry out his No-Deal Brexit, I and other MPs will defend democracy.
The police will have to remove us from the chamber. We will call on people to take to the streets.
We will call an extraordinary session of Parliament. #PeoplesParliament
— Clive Lewis MP (@labourlewis) August 28, 2019
That might play into Johnson’s hands, writes Pat Leahy in the Irish Times, at least in the short run. If Johnson wants a snap election, suspending Parliament to protect Brexit might be a winner:
The reported decision of British prime minister Boris Johnson to suspend – or “prorogue” – parliament for over a month as the clock ticks down to the Brexit date of October 31st will provoke a huge storm in the UK and almost certainly incite a parliamentary rebellion that his government is likely to lose.
This is most probably his intention. Such a defeat will likely lead to a general election in early October – if not before – in which Johnson will enjoy significant advantages. Some recent polls suggest that the Conservatives enjoy a strong lead and Johnson’s novelty as a prime minister, as well as his enormous capacity to speak to voters and be listened to, will make him a hot favourite to beat his rivals, especially Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, in a short, sharp campaign.
Crucially, Johnson can go to the country before Brexit – enabling him to run on a promise of delivering Brexit with or without a deal on October 31st, his already familiar mantra since taking office in July. Equally crucially, the election will come before the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit are felt by voters. So Johnson is in a pretty good position to fight an election in the coming weeks.
Well, maybe. Conducting “constitutional outrages” to get that election might not play as well as Leahy figures with voters, even among fellow Tories. The last time a Tory prime minister thought an election would bolster Brexit efforts, Theresa May ended up with egg on her face, but that may be the least of the downsides. Brexit passed on a popular referendum by less than four points, and that was for a negotiated exit rather than a crash-out. Proroguing Parliament for any length of time to force a no-deal Brexit will add more fuel to an already raging independence movement in Scotland and reunification effort in Northern Ireland, two places that voted solidly for Remain in 2016.
Johnson’s destruction of norms has serious consequences for a United Kingdom that is already on the verge of unraveling. It’s looking very possible that Johnson will win the Brexit battle, only to find himself the first prime minister of England.
Update: Actually, “prorogue” is the correct term, so I stand corrected. I usually think of proroguing Parliament in Cromwellian terms, where it is dismissed in its present form for good.
Update: At least Johnson has one fan:
As it’s shaping up, it won’t be all that tough to get a no-confidence vote going in Parliament, although Corbyn would almost certainly have to agree not to seek the caretaker PM position to get it passed. Johnson might be counting on it to get snap elections, although as noted above, that might not work out so well either.
Update: Queen Elizabeth has approved the request for a parliamentary speech on October 14th. That’s not to say she endorses Johnson’s strategy:
Queen Elizabeth II has approved the U.K. government’s request to suspend Parliament amid a growing crisis over Brexit.
The move was not unexpected, as the monarch has steadfastly refused to get involved in politics throughout her long reign. …
The queen is the head of state and is politically neutral. She acts on the advice of her government in political matters.
Johnson didn’t run much risk in making the request. A refusal would have been a truly shocking turn of events and an obvious political move, which could have stirred republican fervor in the UK. The monarchy is supposed to be above politics while providing advice to the government — in this case, Johnson himself.