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It would be a bit of British understatement to say Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to shut down Parliament for five of the nine remaining weeks before Britain is due to crash out of the European Union has not gone over well.
The new PM’s move Wednesday to prorogue — or suspend — Parliament from Sept. 9 until Oct. 14, thus denying British lawmakers time to come up with an alternative to the government’s stated intention to leave the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a deal, triggered a furious backlash, with critics labeling the move an affront to democracy.
Thousands attended “Stop the coup” demonstrations around the country Wednesday night, opponents launched a new legal challenge, and an online petition against the move swiftly gathered more than 1.4 million signatures.
Parliament’s speaker, John Bercow, branded it a “constitutional outrage,” while newspapers decreed it "the day democracy died” and labelled Johnson a “tinpot despot.” Actor Hugh Grant channelled the rage of many when he tweeted, in reply to Johnson’s announcement of the move: “Fuck off you over-promoted rubber bath toy. Britain is revolted by you and your little gang of masturbatory prefects.”
But Johnson and his “little gang” insist there was nothing constitutionally untoward about their actions. Johnson claims the lengthy recess will provide his new government a fresh start to lay out its “very exciting agenda.”
They say the outrage amounts to more sour grapes from Remainers, and that it will do nothing to dissuade the government from its path to leave.
"The candyfloss of outrage we've had over the last 24 hours, which I think is almost entirely confected, is from people who never wanted to leave the European Union," Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading Brexiteer, told the BBC Thursday.
"This is the greatest period of anger for them, or of confected anger, because after 31 October, we will have left.”
So what does it mean to prorogue Parliament, and why has it led to accusations that Johnson’s carrying out a coup?
It’s the official term referring to the end of a session of Parliament, bringing to an end all current legislation under parliamentary discussion. It’s a regular occurrence, usually taking place in the fall, with the new session of Parliament then opened by the queen’s speech, when the monarch delivers a speech prepared by the government outlining its plans for that parliamentary year.
But this is no normal time in British politics. The usual prorogue did not occur last year, because then-Prime Minister Theresa May said her government needed the time to work on Brexit laws, making the current parliamentary session, which began in 2017, the longest in nearly 400 years.
Johnson’s five-week suspension also includes a three-week window when Parliament usually breaks anyway for political party conferences to be held.
For this reason, Johnson and his allies have argued that their actions are simply business as usual, and that the prorogue will allow his new government to set out a “new bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda for the renewal of our country after Brexit.”
Why the fury, then?
Basically, people don’t buy it.
The suspension of Parliament gives lawmakers less time to try to block or stall Britain’s departure from the EU on Oct. 31, the government’s stated deadline, and they believe this is Johnson’s real goal for the lengthy prorogue.
Johnson has said Britain will leave on that date, with or without a deal with the EU. The government’s own analysis suggests the latter option could result in shortages of food and medicines, riots, chaos at ports, and significant damage to the economy.
Independent parliamentary experts at the Hansard Society have said the length of the suspension is significantly longer than would usually be necessary for restarting a parliamentary session. It would potential halve the number of sitting days lawmakers will have to debate the issue.
Where does the Queen come into it?
The decision to prorogue is technically made by the Queen, but in practice this decision is taken on the advice of her prime minister.
On Wednesday, the Queen assented to the request to prorogue. Technically she could have declined, under the royal prerogative, but to do so would have broken with her traditional stance of political neutrality, and sparked a wider constitutional crisis.
How have Brits responded?
The move, announced while British MPs were on vacation, has triggered outrage, with opponents viewing it as a cynical attempt to manipulate parliamentary democracy. A YouGov poll showed 47 percent thought the move was unacceptable, with just 27 percent believing it was OK.
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn labelled it a “smash and grab” against democracy, Labour MP David Lammy slammed the government for “trashing” parliamentary sovereignty, while Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, said “‘taking back control’ has never looked so sinister.”
The anger boiled over in “stop the coup” protests held around the country Wednesday night. Outside Downing Street, protesters sang “No-one voted for Boris” and brought traffic to a standstill. Police said an estimated 1,500 people attended. Further protests are planned in dozens of towns and cities in the coming days.
An online petition against the prorogue, on the government’s official petitions page, swiftly gathered more than 1.4 million signatures, but it’s a largely symbolic gesture. While parliament considers all petitions with more than 100,000 signatures to be debated, a petition calling for the government to revoke Article 50, the law triggering the UK’s departure from the EU, drew more than 6 million signatures earlier this year and it changed nothing.
Can anyone stop Johnson?
Opponents say there are at least two attempts in the works to challenge the legality of Johnson’s actions. Anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller said Wednesday her lawyers had made an urgent application to the courts for a judicial review of the prorogue, while a group of 75 MPs behind separate challenge in Scottish courts say they are seeking to fast-track their challenge.
Meanwhile, Remainer MPs will continue to plot to block Johnson from pulling Britain out of the EU in a no-deal scenario come Oct. 31. On Tuesday, Labour leader Corbyn struck an agreement with other opposition parties Tuesday to try to stop no-deal in Parliament; the prorogue cuts down their time to maneuver, and may make a snap no-confidence vote in Johnson’s leadership more likely.
In the meantime, many Britons have been left stewing at a government that, in trying to deliver the results of the 2016 referendum, appears to be actively avoiding democratic accountability. Alistair Campbell, former spin doctor for Tony Blair’s Labour government, bemoaned that the maneuvering marked Britain’s slide toward “failed state” status.
“An Old Etonian Prime Minister elected by two-thirds of less than one percent of the country sends an Old Etonian Leader of the Commons to a Scottish castle to ask an elderly Monarch to shut down Parliament as part of the plan to deliver Parliamentary sovereignty,” he tweeted.
Cover: A person wearing a Boris Johnson 'head' digs a grave at the foot of a tombstone during a protest organised by Avaaz and Best for Britain, outside Downing Street in London. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire URN:44897855 (Press Association via AP Images)