(CN) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is contemplating ways to defy Parliament’s passage of a bill Monday aimed at delaying Brexit – even if that might mean dangerously skirting the law or even breaking it.
This extreme scenario was being debated Monday against the backdrop of another dramatic day in British politics when the House of Commons bitterly began a controversial five-week suspension enacted by Johnson. On the same day, the speaker of the House announced he was stepping down.
Johnson insists the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on Oct. 31 regardless of Parliament’s move to block him – and this has left people in the United Kingdom asking seemingly unthinkable questions: Will their prime minister break the law to get his way? Will Johnson face being arrested for ignoring the law?
These far-fetched scenarios, though, are now seriously being discussed in Britain more than three years after 52% of voters chose to leave the EU in a referendum.
“Clearly if we’re going to deliver the verdict of the people, we have to get out on Oct. 31,” Edward Leigh, a Conservative Party member in the House of Commons, said Monday on Sky News television. “How we’re going to do it is not quite clear, but if we don’t do it, I think the people will be bitterly disappointed.”
That led a Sky News anchor to ask: “But it looks like [Johnson] will either have to break the law or break his word. Which is he going to break?”
Leigh paused, and then said he was “strongly in favor of politicians keeping their word.” In other words, he supports Johnson taking the U.K. out on Oct. 31.
The news anchor then asked: “You say you favor politicians keeping their word: Are you in favor of politicians adhering to the law and the rule of law?”
“Absolutely,” Leigh responded. “There’s no doubt at all that if a law is a law, Boris, the prime minister, must abide by it.”
But then Leigh added some caveats to that and said Johnson may find ways around Parliament’s bill “if the law is hazy, if the law is not very well written.”
“I don’t think we should obsess now about how he’s going to do it,” the pro-Brexit Tory continued. “Yes, we’re going to obey the law; yes, we’re going to carry out the will of the people. How we square that circle …” He left that thought unfinished.
On Monday, Parliament gave final approval to a bill that seeks to force Johnson to not leave the EU without a deal on Oct. 31. If he hasn’t struck an exit deal that Parliament supports before that deadline, the bill requires the prime minister to ask the EU to delay Britain’s exit until Jan. 31. Johnson insists a deal is possible, but the chances of that happening before Oct. 31 appear to be slim.
Nonetheless, Johnson continues to insist he will take the U.K. out of the EU on Halloween with or without a deal. Last week, he even said he would prefer being “dead in a ditch” than delaying Brexit.
“We will come out on Oct. 31,” Johnson once again affirmed on Monday during a visit to Ireland, where he met Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to discuss solutions to the future of Northern Ireland, a major sticking point in Brexit negotiations.
“I’m absolutely undaunted by whatever may take place in Parliament,” Johnson added.
Over the weekend, key Cabinet members appeared on news shows and spoke about “testing” Parliament’s bill to delay Brexit.
“We’re going to test very carefully what it does and doesn’t require,” said Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary and an ardent pro-Brexit politician.
He then added: “Of course, he’s not going to break the law.”
Another Cabinet member, Chancellor Sajid Javid, said Johnson would not ask the EU to delay Brexit when he meets European leaders at a summit being held Oct. 17-18.
Johnson’s opponents saw in these statements an intent by the government to ignore the law.
“We’re in quite extraordinary territory when the prime minister says he’s above the law,” Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said Monday.
Michael Heseltine, a Tory stalwart and member of the House of Lords who is opposed to Britain’s exit from the EU, was aghast at the talk of defying Parliament’s bill.
“We have now seen a Tory prime minister saying he will break the law,” Heseltine told Channel 4 news. “The law is the law, whether you are prime minister or the lowest, most impoverished citizen in the country. There are no exceptions to this.”
He added: “Once you step down that road, what does a tyrant do next? They get away with it once, they’ll get away with it twice.”
Heseltine said he believed Johnson’s advisers were calculating that by making Johnson seek to defy Parliament’s bill, the prime minister “could be seen as a martyr” in the run-up to elections. Due to a bruising deadlock in Parliament, an election is expected to be called, most likely after the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline.
Johnson’s government is reportedly considering a number of ways to get around complying with Parliament’s bill to delay Brexit.
British media report that Johnson may simply refuse to ask the EU for a delay, even if that may be deemed by the courts as breaking the law. He may also seek to derail delaying Brexit by telling the EU that Britain does not want to extend the Brexit deadline. Other options include Johnson resigning without asking for an extension and seeking to persuade European nations to veto granting a delay.
Hannah White, deputy director of the think tank Institute for Government, said that Johnson would be breaking the law if he refuses to ask to delay Brexit even after he has failed to secure a withdrawal deal that Parliament supports. She said such a move would bring court cases against him and likely trigger a vote of no confidence.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)