British PM Moves to Suspend Parliament Ahead of Brexit

(CN) – The value of the British pound fell sharply. Pundits called it a constitutional crisis. Politicians called it a coup. Legal challenges were mounted. And preparations for a new election sped up, as the Brexit showdown went into hyper-drive on Wednesday.

British Parliament

In a dramatic move, pro-Brexit Tory British Prime Minister Boris Johnson upped the ante in his clash with Brexit opponents, getting Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday afternoon to suspend the House of Commons for a month between mid-September and mid-October.

Under U.K. law, the power to “prorogue” — the official term for shutting down Parliament — rests solely with the queen, done on the advice of her prime minister.

What makes Johnson’s move so dramatic is the fact that the U.K. faces an Oct. 31 deadline to leave the European Union or ask for another extension. By suspending Parliament, Johnson effectively limits the time his opponents have to challenge his promise to leave the EU by the end of October, “do or die.”

Furthermore, prorogation wipes the legislative agenda clean and all bills pending before the MPs die. In the past, sovereigns used the procedure to limit the power of the MPS, who can only return to work when they are summoned by the monarch.

As with most developments in the ongoing Brexit fight, it is unclear where this new twist might lead. The only certainty is that Britain’s Brexit chaos will only get nastier – and the financial markets reflected that Wednesday as the pound sterling fell sharply.

Johnson’s maneuver was immediately condemned by political opponents and many experts as undemocratic and reckless. 

“It seems to be getting very close to a constitutional crisis,” said Sir Anthony Seldon, a political writer and the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, in an interview with Sky News television. “We are in this very, very uncertain stage.”

Many pundits believe Johnson’s goal is to force new elections, to be able to strengthen his hand in Parliament, where the Tory party does not command a majority after it unexpectedly lost seats in a snap election called by former Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017.

A new election might happen if a majority in Parliament votes against his government in a confidence vote, which could happen as early as next week and before Parliament is forced to suspend its activity in the second week of September.

Parliament was expected to suspend its activities in September anyway, as it typically does in the autumn, but Johnson has forced it to shut down for a longer period. Parliament is now due to return on Oct. 14. when the queen will make a speech to formally open Parliament’s proceedings.

Before Wednesday’s move to suspend parliamentary proceedings, there was also a possibility that Parliament might have chosen to stay in session throughout the period prior to the Oct. 31 deadline due to the pressing business of Brexit.

For weeks, British media has been reporting that Johnson’s government has been preparing for a general election. Johnson may be angling for an election because the Tory party is doing well in polls while support for its main opponent, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, has waned.

Whatever the political motivations, the decision to suspend Parliament was seen by many as damaging trust in democracy.

This is really a dark time for this country,” said Lord Bob Kerslake, the former head of Britain’s civil service. “This is a reckless and divisive act by the prime minister.”

He said suspending Parliament risked undermining “faith in parliamentary democracy” and believes that the manner in which Parliament is being suspended may be illegal.

It’s deliberate to frustrate a process of [parliamentary] debate,” he said. “This is playing fast and loose with our constitution.”

Kerslake said that while Johnson’s move will curtail his opposition, it could also backfire and bring his opponents from across different parties, including many in Johnson’s own Tory party, together.

So it works in both directions,” he told Sky News.

A battle royal appears to be in the making. 

First up is a legal challenge to Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament. A Scottish court is expected to take up the matter on Friday.

Scottish politicians have been fighting hard against Brexit, which they say will hurt Scotland’s economy. A majority of Scots voted against leaving the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Inside the Tory party, Johnson’s move was applauded. His supporters see suspending Parliament as a bold move that could strengthen his hand by either forcing new elections or paving the way for Britain to leave the EU with or without a deal on Oct. 31.

Opposition politicians slammed Johnson’s move.

What the prime minister is doing is a sort of smash and grab on our democracy in order to force through a no-deal exit from the European Union,” Corbyn, the Labour leader, told reporters.

Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, used even more incendiary language and called the long suspension of Parliament “a very British coup.”

Whatever one’s views on Brexit, once you allow a prime minister to prevent the full and free operation of our democratic institutions you are on a very precarious path,” McDonnell said on Twitter.

Labour has been seeking to build a coalition in Parliament to stop a no-deal Brexit and eventually force new elections.

The Scottish National Party’s leader in the House of Commons, Ian Blackford, likened Johnson to a dictator.

The Tory leader has no mandate, no majority and is acting like a dictator by attempting to curtail Parliament to get his way,” Blackford said.

Blackford was referring to how Johnson became prime minister only after a Tory leadership contest took place to find a replacement for May. She resigned after being unable to get Parliament to accept a withdrawal deal she had forged with the EU spelling out the terms of the U.K.’s departure.

May’s deal was defeated in Parliament due to rigid opposition from a small group of Tory and Northern Irish politicians who were livid that Northern Ireland faced the prospect of being tied to EU rules and laws for the indefinite future.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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