Boris Johnson asks Queen Elizabeth to suspend Parliament to force through Brexit

Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY

LONDON – Protests broke out across Britain and a million people signed an online petition after Queen Elizabeth II approved a controversial request by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to suspend Parliament, a move that restricts the time lawmakers have to try to block the nation from leaving the European Union without an exit deal. 

It means British parliamentarians who are determined to stop the nation from leaving the EU without a formal deal will have little time to do so just weeks ahead of a Brexit deadline on Oct. 31. Johnson asked the Queen to "prorogue" Parliament – shut it down, essentially – on Sept. 10, a week after lawmakers return from summer recess.

Parliament will be closed for 5 weeks. 

The decision sparked a furious backlash. Demonstrations were held late Wednesday in major cities and towns. Outside Parliament in London protesters chanted "stop the coup" and waved EU flags. More demonstrations are planned this weekend. The online petition passed the threshold needed to be considered for a debate in Parliament.    

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Critics argue the move subverts the democratic process. Dominic Grieve, a member of Johnson's ruling Conservative Party, called it "an outrageous act" and warned that it could lead to a no confidence vote. "This government will come down," said Grieve.

Britain's monarch rarely intervenes directly in politicized affairs of state and it would be exceptionally rare for her to defy the prime minister's request. The British pound currency fell sharply on the news, down almost 1% against the dollar.  

Opposition parties in recent days have been formulating plans to prevent a "no-deal" Brexit, which economists and political scientists believe could dramatically harm Britain's economy and lead to chaos on the nation's borders. However, since taking over as Britain's leader last month, Johnson has vowed to pursue Brexit at any cost. 

"Unless MPs come together to stop (Johnson) ... today will go down in history as a dark one indeed for UK democracy," Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted Wednesday. Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Johnson was embarking on a "dangerous and unacceptable course of action." She said that "shutting down Parliament would be an act of cowardice from Boris Johnson."

In a statement, Johnson said Parliament would restart on Oct. 14, giving rebelling lawmakers only two weeks to find a way to thwart any "no-deal" Brexit. He also characterized the decision as less about Brexit and more about an attempt to "bring forward a new bold and ambitious legislative agenda" aimed at helping to boost funding to Britain's state health care system, fighting crime and cutting living costs. 

Johnson said there would be enough time for lawmakers to debate Brexit. 

"It is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty," said John Bercow, the speaker of the Parliament. He has pledged to fight Parliament's suspension. 

Britain's Parliament is typically "prorogued" once a year for a short time, usually in April or May, to allow for any backlogged legislation to wend its way through the legislative body. But it's not considered normal for it to be suspended for other reasons. It's not clear if or how lawmakers can effectively oppose Johnson's request. They may try to launch a no confidence vote and legal action to block the suspension has already gotten underway at a court in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

"Boris Johnson and his government are trashing the constitution … While Parliament is not even sitting, he is disgracefully dragging the queen into the heart of the most difficult and dangerous exploitation of the usual powers of government," said Margaret Beckett, a Labour Party politician who is a leading supporter of a new Brexit vote. 

In a briefing paper, the "Constitution Unit" at University College London described Johnson's suspension of Parliament as "arguably unconstitutional."

"We are indeed in uncharted territory and entering a very fluid situation embroiling Her Majesty, her Government, her Parliament and her courts and will affect all her subjects," said David Sheppard, a lawyer at Britain-based law firm, Capital Law. 

The move also ultimately adds to speculation, disputed by Johnson and members of his Cabinet, that his government is preparing to call a snap general election aimed at reaffirming a mandate to take Britain out of the 28-nation EU political bloc. 

But Nigel Farage, a leading Brexit supporter and close ally of President Donald Trump, said Johnson's decision to suspend Parliament was a good one and means that a general election is "more likely and is seen as a positive move by Brexiteers."

And Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, told BBC radio on Thursday that opponents of the suspension were "phoney" and were only protesting because they wanted to stay in the EU. He disputed that the move was politically motivated or intended to obstruct the Brexit negotiation process with the EU.  

On the sidelines of the G-7 summit in southwest France over the weekend, Johnson's handling of Brexit was praised by Trump. "He’s the right man for the job," Trump said of Johnson. "I've been saying that for a long time."

On Wednesday, Trump weighed in further, saying in a tweet that that "Boris is exactly what the U.K. has been looking for, & will prove to be 'a great one!' Love U.K."

Post-Brexit, one of Johnson's first tasks will be to sign a series of trade deals. An agreement with the United States is among his top priorities.  

Confused about Brexit? Here's a brief primer

  • June 2016: British public vote to leave the European Union. "Leave" side wins by a narrow majority.
  • March 2017: British government formally triggers Article 50, legislation backed by Parliament that gives the EU notice it will leave the bloc in two years. 
  • November 2018: British Parliament and EU leaders agree to tentative withdrawal agreement over the objection of many British lawmakers who worry about how the deal treats the status of the free-trade border between EU-member Ireland) and North Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) after Brexit. 
  • November 2018-March 2019: British Prime Minister Theresa May fails three times over several months to get parliamentary approval for deal agreed with EU.
  • March 29: Initial Brexit deadline passes. May requests new June 30 deadline. The EU grants a longer extension, until Oct. 31. 
  • May 24: After months of pressure, May announces she will resign as prime minister effective June 7 but will stay on in a caretaker capacity until a successor is found.
  • May 23-26: Britain participates in EU parliamentary elections even though it is still expecting to leave the EU. 
  • July 24: Boris Johnson is appointed prime minister after an internal Conservative Party vote. In Britain, a party, not a specific leader is elected. Johnson vows to deliver Brexit with or without a formal withdrawal agreement with the EU.
  • Aug. 28: Johnson asks Queen Elizabeth to "prorogued" or suspend Parliament from Sept. 10, boosting his chances of delivering Brexit with or without an EU exit deal. 
  • Sept. 3: Parliament to return from recess. 
  • Sept. 10: Parliament expected to be "prorogued" or suspended per Johnson's request.
  • Oct. 17-18: Last scheduled EU summit where Brexit will be discussed.
  • Oct. 31: Britain expected to formally leave the EU. 
Anti-Brexit supporters take part in a protest in front of the Houses of Parliament in central London, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Boris Johnson asks Queen Elizabeth to suspend Parliament for Brexit