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Queen approves Boris Johnson’s request to suspend Parliament ahead of Brexit deadline

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2019-08-28 Karla Adam, Michael Birnbaum
a person standing in a room: Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth on July 24 © Victoria Jones - WPA Pool/Getty Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth on July 24

LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II approved a request by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday to shut down Parliament for several weeks ahead of Britain’s upcoming departure from the European Union, an unusual maneuver that will rob his opponents of time to thwart a no-deal Brexit. 

The announcement of Johnson’s plan prompted expressions of outrage from many lawmakers, who said they are being deprived of their democratic voice on Britain’s most momentous decision in generations. It increased the chances that the country will sail out of the European Union at the end of October with no transition deal to buffer its passage, a move analysts say could cause major economic turmoil.

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Johnson told reporters he had asked the queen, who is on holiday at her Scottish estate of Balmoral, to give her customary speech outlining the country’s legislative agenda in mid-October, effectively suspending Parliament between Sept. 11 and Oct. 14.

The queen acceded to the request, as is customary.

In an official statement, the Privy Council confirmed that the queen agreed to prorogue Parliament no sooner than Sept. 9 and no later than Sept. 12. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, Natalie Evans, the leader of the House of Lords, and Mark Spencer, the chief whip, were at Balmoral to make the request.

Britain is expected to leave the European Union on Oct. 31.

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Johnson denied claims that Brexit is the reason he sought the new timetable, telling reporters he wants a new session of Parliament so he can lay out the government’s “very exciting agenda.”

He added that there would be “ample time” for Parliament to debate Brexit.

The move to suspend — or prorogue — Parliament at this crucial time in the Brexit process angered many lawmakers, including some in the governing Conservative Party.

A petition launched on the British Parliament website calling for the government not to suspend Parliament quickly exceeded 100,000 signatures, the number needed for it to be considered for a debate in Parliament. The latest tally was 360,000, and it was rocketing skyward, although any parliamentary discussion in reaction to such a petition would be non-binding.

Proroguing parliament is not unusual — it’s a normal part of parliamentary procedure. But by doing it in the weeks ahead of Brexit, it shortens the timetable for lawmakers to pass any other kind of legislation, such as that which could prevent a no-deal Brexit.

A “constitutional outrage,” said John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, in a statement. “However it is dressed up it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty.”

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn vowed to fight Johnson’s move.

“Boris Johnson’s attempt to suspend parliament to avoid scrutiny of his plans for a reckless No Deal Brexit is an outrage and a threat to our democracy,” he wrote on Twitter. “Labour will work across Parliament to hold the government to account and prevent a disastrous No Deal.”

In the rest of the European Union, leaders have grown increasingly resigned to the possibility that Britain will leave without a deal. But there was anger — and some shock — that it could happen with minimal input from Parliament.

“We could see a no-deal Brexit coming. Now it’s a no-debate Brexit that’s looming,” tweeted Nathalie Loiseau, a member of European Parliament and a top ally of French President Emmanuel Macron. “What disease is British democracy suffering from to fear a debate before making one of the most important decisions in its history?”

Boris Johnson wearing a suit and tie: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during his final press conference at the G7 summit Monday, Aug. 26, 2019 in Biarritz, southwestern France. © Francois Mori/AP Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during his final press conference at the G7 summit Monday, Aug. 26, 2019 in Biarritz, southwestern France.

Opposition leaders had talked about forcing a no-confidence vote in Johnson’s government sometime before late October. Wednesday’s maneuver, if successful, would drastically narrow their window to next week. But it was unclear they had the votes to stop Johnson or to force new elections.

“Unless MPs come together to stop him next week, today will go down in history as a dark one indeed for UK democracy,” said Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party.

British lawmakers return to Parliament next week following their summer recess, or break. Parliament then normally shuts down in late September when the political parties hold their annual conferences. The proposed suspension would extend that period.

“Normally, when we prorogue Parliament it’s for five or six days maximum between sessions and I think this is pretty unprecedented,” said Dominic Grieve, a Conservative lawmaker. He called it “outrageous.”

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The latest maneuverings follow a meeting on Tuesday by opposition lawmakers to try to thwart a no-deal Brexit. In a rare show of unity, leaders of opposition parties agreed that they would prioritize trying to pass legislation to stop a no-deal Brexit.

Britain’s mop-topped prime minister has set his timetable: he says that Britain will leave the E.U. with or without a deal by Oct. 31. He insists that he wants a deal, but his four-page letter to E.U. chiefs and talks last week with the leaders of France and Germany have yet to yield any breakthroughs.

Over a week of negotiations with other E.U. leaders, including over the weekend at the Group of Seven Summit in Biarritz, France, Johnson left his counterparts feeling that he would prefer to exit the E.U. with a deal, according to officials briefed on the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private assessments.

But leaders including Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel felt Johnson was ready to depart on the October deadline if no politically feasible deal materializes in the meantime.

With the risk of a no-deal Brexit seemingly rising by the day, those opposed to leaving without an exit plan — the majority of lawmakers in the British Parliament — are plotting ways to avert such a development, which leaked official documents say could lead to food and fuel shortages and a return of a hard border in Ireland.

But if Parliament isn’t sitting for an extended period of time, it will stymie efforts of opposition lawmakers to stop a no-deal Brexit.

Many think that Johnson is ramping up for a possible early general election, which he says he doesn’t want. Johnson has a working majority of just one.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, tweeted that he would consider a pact with the Conservative Party in a general election should Johnson exit the bloc without a deal. If Johnson strikes a deal with the E.U., Farage said that his Brexit Party “will fight him every inch of the way.”

karla.adam@washpost.com

michael.birnbaum@washpost.com

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