Prime Minister Boris Johnson's controversial suspension of Parliament took effect early Tuesday, and lawmakers did not go quietly: they chanted, held up protest signs, and tried to physically restrain the Speaker from leaving his chair to end the session.
Outraged at the government’s ploy to shut down Parliament for five weeks, less than eight weeks before the country is due to leave the EU, Parliament’s Speaker, John Bercow, initially resisted participating in the ceremonial formalities to suspend Parliament, and a scuffle broke out as opposition MPs tried to keep him in his seat.
Bercow eventually agreed to participate in the ceremony to trigger the suspension, but not before delivering a withering indictment on the government’s actions. “I do want to make the point that this is not a normal prorogation,” he said.
“It’s one of the longest for decades and it represents, not just in the minds of many colleagues, but huge numbers of people outside, an act of executive fiat.”
The uproar reflected Parliament’s growing anger at the controversial suspension, just 51 days from the date Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union, which will mean Parliament will not sit for more than a month while the biggest geopolitical shift the country has faced in decades remains completely unresolved.
The suspension came at the end of a marathon day on which Boris Johnson continued his remarkable losing streak as prime minister.
Johnson has lost all six of the key votes he’s faced so far in his premiership. On Tuesday, MPs blocked his second attempt to force a snap national election, thwarting his attempts to break the longstanding parliamentary deadlock over Brexit. They also voted to compel the government to publish details of its secret preparations for a no-deal departure.
A critical new piece of legislation designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit by compelling Johnson to ask the EU for a deadline extension also passed into law Monday, although a defiant Johnson said that it would not alter his strategy and that his government would look for ways to work around it.
“This government will press on with negotiating a deal, while preparing to leave without one,” Johnson told parliament, after the MPs once again voted against the snap election.
Chaotic scenes as Parliament suspended
While it’s normal practice for new governments to suspend Parliament to allow them to set out a renewed legislative program, the length and timing of the latest suspension, at a critical stage in the Brexit process, has caused widespread outrage, provoking MPs within Johnson’s own Conservative Party to vote against him.
As the suspension process began, opposition MPs broke into songs of protest, yelled “Shame on you” at government lawmakers, and held up signs reading “Silenced.”
An altercation broke out as one group of lawmakers attempted to physically prevent Bercow from leaving the Speaker’s chair to go to the House of Lords to finish the prorogation procedure. Labour MP Clive Lewis said the symbolic protest was a replication of an incident in 1629, when “MPs pinned the Speaker to his seat in an attempt to prevent the prorogation of Parliament.”
When Bercow left his chair, a sign was left in his placed that read: “Silenced.”
What happens next?
Despite the new law compelling Johnson to ask the EU for a three-month extension to the current Oct. 31 Brexit deadline, if a deal with the EU hasn’t been reached by Oct. 19, the government has signalled it intends to push the law to its limits.
Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said Sunday that the government was determined not to ask Brussels for an extension, despite the new law explicitly requiring it to do so.
“We will adhere to the law, but also this is such a bad piece of legislation,” he said, adding that the law could be challenged in the courts. “We will also want to test to the limit what it does actually lawfully require. We will look very carefully at the implications and our interpretation of it.”
Since replacing May as prime minister, Johnson has insisted he will lead the UK out of the EU by Oct. 31, with or without a deal. His government says parliament’s efforts to rule out a no-deal departure weaken the government’s hand in negotiations to secure a better Brexit deal with the EU.
Johnson insisted Monday that the new law would not dissuade him from his path.
“No matter how many devices this parliament invents to tie my hands, I will strive to get an agreement in the national interest,” he said. “This government will not delay Brexit any further.”
One way around the new law would be to hold early elections, which Johnson hopes would give his government a mandate to repeal the law. But early elections can only be held if two-thirds of MPs vote for them, and opposition MPs have said they won’t back an election until they are confident that a delay to Brexit has been secured.
“As keen as we are [for an election], we are not prepared to risk inflicting the disaster of no-deal on our communities,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Monday. Speaking at a conference Tuesday, he reiterated his view that a no deal Brexit would be disastrous for the UK.
“A no-deal Brexit is really a Trump Deal Brexit, leading to a one-sided U.S. trade deal negotiated from a position of weakness.”
Despite the string of defeats for Johnson, polls suggest his Conservative Party has a lead of between three and 14 points on Labour, although in such a turbulent political climate the public mood is far from clear.
With the main opposition party, Labour, facing fierce criticism from Remainers for its ineffective opposition to Brexit, the Liberal Democrats — traditionally Britain’s third party — have made huge inroads through their fierce opposition to leaving the EU, attracting defecting MPs and building public support to within only 4 percentage points of Labour.
The Liberal Democrats’ leader Jo Swinson revealed Monday that her party would campaign in any upcoming election of a platform of revoking Article 50 — the law that triggered Brexit — bringing the cancellation of Brexit explicitly into the political fray.
“A majority Liberal Democrat government would not renegotiate Brexit, we would cancel it by revoking article 50 and remaining in the European Union,” she said.
Cover: Boris Johnson visit to Ireland. Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Government Buildings during his visit to Dublin. Picture date: Monday September 9, 2019. Niall Carson/PA Wire URN:45141614 (Press Association via AP Images)