Judges in Britain’s highest court delivered a bombshell judgment Tuesday, ruling unanimously that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament for five weeks, at a critical period in the Brexit crisis, was illegal.
There were audible gasps as Supreme Court President Brenda Hale read out the judgment that Johnson’s move to “prorogue” or suspend Parliament was “unlawful, void, and of no effect.” As a result, Parliament has not actually been suspended at all — and should return to sitting as soon as possible.
“The decision to advise her majesty to prorogue Parliament was unlawful, because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification,” she said.
“Parliament has not been prorogued.”
The ruling is a stunning defeat for Johnson, whose move to advise Queen Elizabeth earlier this month to suspend Parliament from Sept. 10 to Oct. 14 led to immediate legal challenges. The judgment has sparked renewed calls for him to resign.
While Johnson’s government insisted there was nothing unusual about the maneuver, critics said it was a blatant attempt by the Brexiteer leader to prevent Parliament from interfering with his plans to take Britain out of the European Union by an Oct. 31 deadline.
And now, the country’s top judges agree.
What does the ruling mean?
The court was considering two separate legal challenges to rulings in courts in England and Scotland, which had reached different conclusions on the legality of the suspension.
The first legal question the judges considered was whether the courts even had the right to weigh in on Johnson’s decision. They ruled unanimously that they did.
Then the justices considered whether Johnson’s move was lawful, and found that it was not, because it had the effect of preventing Parliament from carrying out its core function, including debating the government’s Brexit plans.
The move was “unlawful, void and of no effect,” said Hale — so much so that when officials had walked into Parliament to deliver the order to suspend, “it was as if they walked in with a blank sheet of paper.”
While the ruling stopped short of explicitly accusing Johnson of having lied to the queen — who is responsible for suspending Parliament, on the advice of her prime minister — the judges said it was “impossible for us to conclude, on the evidence which has been put before us, that there was any reason, let alone a good reason” for him to have advised her to do so.
“His position is untenable”
Pro-Remain MPs are celebrating the crushing rebuke of Johnson’s controversial strategy to steamroll his way to a no-deal Brexit. Some are calling on the prime minister, who is currently in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, to resign, and the hashtag #byebyeboris began trending on Twitter.
“This is a huge victory for the rule of law and for democracy,” said Joanna Cherry, a Scottish National Party lawmaker who led one of the groups bringing the cases under consideration.
“The highest court in the United Kingdom has unanimously found that… his advice given to Her Majesty the Queen was unlawful. His position is untenable, and he should have the guts for once to do the decent thing and resign.”
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn echoed that call, saying the ruling highlighted Johnson’s “contempt for democracy and abuse of power.”
“I invite Boris Johnson… to consider his position… and become the shortest-serving Prime Minister there’s ever been,” he said.
Johnson had said ahead of the ruling that he would not step down, even if it went against him. But the ruling places his leadership on even shakier ground ahead of a make-or-break month ahead in which he has vowed to take Britain out of the EU, with or without a deal.
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage called the move to suspend Parliament "the worst political decision ever,” but instead laid blame at the feet of Johnson’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, who is widely seen as the mastermind behind the prime minister’s kamikaze Brexit strategy.
And Brexiteers within the Conservative Party weren’t happy. Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, said that reopening Parliament, which has repeatedly refused to approve any withdrawal deals reached with the European Union, would simply allow lawmakers to continue to block the government’s Brexit plans, frustrating its attempts to honor the result of the 2016 referendum.
“It’s the worst possible outcome for our democracy,” he said. “We’ve got a zombie parliament that won’t go back to the people and be held accountable.”
What happens now?
Since the court ruled that Parliament had never in effect been suspended, opposition leaders said they were ready to immediately re-enter the chamber and were awaiting the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, to call them back into session. Bercow, who loudly protested Johnson’s moves to suspend Parliament at the time, said he welcomed the move.
“As the embodiment of our Parliamentary democracy, the House of Commons must convene without delay. To this end, I will now consult the party leaders as a matter of urgency,” he said.
Cover: A person dressed as a caricature of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a prison uniform stands outside the Supreme Court in London, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 after it made it's decision on the legality of Johnson's five-week suspension of Parliament. In a setback for Johnson, Britain's Supreme Court has ruled that the suspension of Parliament was illegal. The ruling Tuesday is a major blow to the prime minister who had suspended Parliament for five weeks, claiming it was a routine closure. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)