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In a surprising move, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suspended parliament | Neil Hall/EPA
LONDON — The phony war is over. The real battle for Brexit is about to begin.
After a summer of shadow-boxing and speculation, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's decision Wednesday to ask the queen to suspend parliament sent shockwaves through Westminster, which thought it had a few more quiet days in store before MPs return from their summer break on Tuesday.
The suspension could come into effect as early as September 9, and ends on October 14, giving MPs a matter of days to try to block Johnson from taking the U.K. out of the EU without a deal on October 31, as he has vowed to do if his talks with the EU about rewriting Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement go nowhere. Otherwise, they will have a two-week window at the end of October, by which time it may be too late.
In a day that saw the apolitical Queen Elizabeth II, after 67 years on the throne, dragged irreversibly into politics, perhaps the most significant intervention came from Speaker John Bercow, the final arbiter of House of Commons rules. He called Johnson's decision "a constitutional outrage" and said it is "vital that our elected Parliament has its say" on Brexit.
Opposition MPs took that as a cue that Bercow will do his utmost to facilitate MPs who want to ensure that the majority view in the Commons — that a no-deal Brexit should not happen — is heard.
“The prime minister’s decision is a reckless one, unconstitutional" — Dominic Grieve, a leading anti-no deal Conservative
Johnson insisted it is a purely practical measure, that he is still determined to get a Brexit deal over the line, and that there is still "ample time" for MPs to have their say. But opposition leaders called it a "coup," "a dangerous precedent," and the act of a "tin-pot dictator" — and believe they can stop him.
“The prime minister’s decision is a reckless one, unconstitutional," former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, a leading anti-no deal Tory rebel, told POLITICO. "And I don’t believe he will succeed in his aim of marginalizing the Commons at a time of national crisis."
The suspension, or "prorogation," will last from the second week of September to October 14, when a queen's speech will be held — the formal opening of a new session of parliament, when the government sets out its goals for the new term. A short prorogation traditionally precedes a queen's speech: Under the U.K.'s unwritten constitution, the prime minister has the authority to ask for one, and the monarch routinely obliges. But this prorogation marks the longest since 1945, constitutional experts at the Hansard Society told the Guardian.
Johnson and Downing Street portrayed it as a logistical move to ensure a new domestic legislative agenda can be brought forward this fall. Ministers and aides, playing down the radicalism of the maneuver, pointed out that parliament was, in any case, due to break for its annual recess for three weeks from mid-September to early October. But opposition MPs had planned to force a vote on curtailing or canceling that recess.
There can be no such vote to block a prorogation, which is a "prerogative" power held by the queen on the advice of the Privy Council, an ancient arm of the state, currently led by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg.
It was Rees-Mogg, along with Leader of the House of Lords Natalie Evans and Chief Whip Mark Spencer, who in an unannounced trip traveled to the queen's residence in Scotland, Balmoral Castle, to advise her of the suspension on Wednesday morning. Johnson himself spoke to the queen by phone.
Confronted with the charge that it is an affront to democracy, Johnson told broadcasters: “That is completely untrue. If you look at what we’re doing, we’re bringing forward a new legislative program on crime, on hospitals, making sure that we have the education funding that we need. And there will be ample time on both sides of that crucial October 17 [European Council] summit, ample time in parliament for MPs to debate the EU, to debate Brexit and all the other issues.”
The linkage to the domestic agenda, where Johnson has unveiled a raft of crowd-pleasing measures, points to a thinly veiled interest in an early election to cement his authority and increase his majority in the Commons (currently just one, and only with the support of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party.)
Johnson may believe forcing MPs to take him on, either by legislating for a Brexit extension, or via a vote of no confidence, will precipitate an election that he can fight as a champion of people (who voted for Brexit three years ago) versus parliament, which he could claim is trying to block not just the U.K.'s departure from the EU, but a popular domestic agenda too. Campaigning on a promise to deliver Brexit "do or die" could also have the benefit, for his Conservatives, of nullifying the threat of Nigel Farage's Brexit Party.
Farage called the suspension "a positive move" that makes an election more likely, and dared Johnson to go for no deal rather than pursue the Withdrawal Agreement. "If he does [continue with the existing deal], then the Brexit Party will fight him every inch of the way. But if he now wants a clean-break Brexit, then we would like to help him secure a large majority in a general election," Farage said, hinting at a potentially formidable electoral pact of the pro-Brexit parties.
In truth, No. 10's strategy is likely to be multilayered. Johnson's most powerful adviser, Dominic Cummings, is a believer that a smart politician always keeps "two irons in the fire.”
If MPs fail to delay Brexit or to bring down Johnson in the next few days, the prime minister can continue the talks with the EU about scrapping the Northern Ireland backstop element of the Brexit deal. The deadline for agreement appears to be the European Council summit of October 17-18, and in a letter to MPs, Johnson said there would be time for votes on the outcome of that summit before the U.K. leaves on October 31.
It is possible the real showdown with MPs will come at this stage, but few opposition leaders or Tory rebels want to leave it to the last minute.
"Johnson has laid the ace of hearts, we'll have to lay the ace of spades" — A senior anti-Brexit MP
One constitutional expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the move makes the legislative route to stop a "no deal" much harder: “If they were going do anything of a legislative character, you need to provide time, you need to actually have a bill ... The government would be doing their best to scupper it.”
"We're going to have to legislate in the eight days we have," said one senior anti-Brexit MP. "Johnson has laid the ace of hearts, we'll have to lay the ace of spades."
Another senior anti-no deal MP said they had been up "since 2 a.m." coordinating tactics. The actual plan, however, was not disclosed. "We don't want the prime minister to know what we're going to do," the MP said. Opposition party leaders are holding a series of meetings to whittle down the strategy.
Whatever happens now, Johnson's gambit has significantly raised the political temperature in the U.K.
Both Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson wrote to the queen herself to protest the move and seek their own meeting. The queen is normally regarded to be above politics, and will no doubt take a dim view of being placed at the center of this tug-of-war. The monarch, according to her biographer Robert Lacey, has "a horror of being dragged into politics."
Johnson’s decision also attracted international attention, including praise from U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as criticism from European Parliament President David Sassoli, who tweeted: “Listening to parliaments is always good for democracy. For this reason, it is better to keep them open. #Prorogation.”
Some tactics proposed by parliamentarians to resist the suspension suggest dramatic days ahead. Labour MP Clive Lewis pledged "the police will have to remove us from the chamber" and "we will call on people to take to the streets." The pro-Labour campaign group Momentum accused the government of staging a "coup" and called for a protest in Westminster on Wednesday evening. Meanwhile, a group MPs asked Edinburgh's Court of Session to hold a hearing on the legality of the suspension.
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is pursuing a second referendum on independence from the U.K., called Johnson "a tin-pot dictator"
"Shutting down parliament in order to force through a no-deal Brexit which will do untold and lasting damage against the wishes of MPs is not democracy, it's dictatorship," she said. "If MPs don't come together next week to stop Boris Johnson in his tracks, I think today will go down in history as the day U.K. democracy died."
Former Cabinet minister and one-time Conservative leadership contender Rory Stewart, who earlier this year vowed to take part in an alternative parliament should a prime minister take the route of suspension, said the "opportunity to stop no-deal Brexit" would begin on Tuesday. Another former Tory minister, David Gauke, called on fellow Conservatives to "put to one side your views of a no deal Brexit."
"Imagine that Jeremy Corbyn is PM, pursuing a policy that is unpopular in Parliament & in the country. At a crucial moment he finds a way to evade Parliamentary scrutiny for several weeks. This is a dangerous precedent," Gauke said.
Another prominent anti-no deal Conservative, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, is reportedly on the verge of quitting, according to the BBC.
The problem for anti-no deal forces is that some of them, including from Labour, the Lib Dems and Sturgeon's Scottish National Party, want a second Brexit referendum and would back Remain, whereas the handful of Tory rebels, whose numbers could make the difference, mostly want to deliver Brexit, but with a deal. Also in the mix are a handful of Labour MPs opposed to a second referendum.
Bercow, meanwhile — releasing a statement while enjoying the last days of his family holiday — left MPs in no doubt that he would prioritize their efforts to block Johnson's strategy, first thing Tuesday.
"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 in shaping a course for the country," he said. "At this time, one of the most challenging periods in our nation's history, it is vital that our elected Parliament has its say. After all, we live in a parliamentary democracy."
Annabelle Dickson contributed reporting.