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Court says Boris Johnson's suspension of Parliament is unlawful — so what now for Brexit?

The court said Johnson's advice to Queen Elizabeth II was unlawful "because its purpose was to stymie parliamentary scrutiny" of the government.
Image: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks in West Yorkshire on Sept. 5, 2019.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he's willing to take Britain out of the E.U. without a divorce agreement.Danny Lawson / PA Wire via Reuters file

LONDON — A Scottish court ruled Wednesday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson's decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks during the ongoing Brexit crisis was unlawful — suggesting that he may have misled Queen Elizabeth II when he asked her to sign off on the suspension.

Lawmakers will have to wait until Tuesday for a U.K. Supreme Court ruling to find out definitively if the suspension is deemed illegal — but the Scottish judges' intervention marks another remarkable assault on the prime minister's authority as he desperately tries to fulfill his promise to make Brexit happen on Oct. 31.

Johnson says that he suspended — or in Westminster jargon "prorogued" — Parliament from Tuesday morning until mid-October so he could forge ahead with a new legislative agenda.

But the Court of Session, the highest civil court in Scotland, ruled the move was unlawful because Johnson wanted to "prevent or impede Parliament holding the executive to account and legislating with regard to Brexit, and to allow the executive to pursue a policy of a no deal Brexit without further Parliamentary interference."

Brexit is at the heart of all this: Johnson says he would be willing to take the U.K. out of the E.U. without a divorce agreement. Forecasts warn this extreme scenario could result in nationwide economic pain and shortages of food and medicine.

A majority of lawmakers are opposed to this scenario, although they were still able to pass legislation that forces the prime minister to ask E.U. leaders for a Brexit extension until January if he cannot agree a deal with the E.U.

To suspend Parliament, Johnson had to go through the formality of advising Queen Elizabeth II of his reasons for doing so and asking her permission.

This was met with a maelstrom of condemnation from his opponents and independent experts who said that asking for what will be the longest suspension in decades amounted to an undemocratic abuse of power.

In a summary of its decision Wednesday, the court said Johnson's advice to the queen was unlawful "because its purpose was to stymie parliamentary scrutiny" of the government.

However, this does not mean that the prorogation is immediately lifted. The court did not issue an order enforcing its decision and won't do so before the U.K.'s Supreme Court considers the case on Tuesday.

"We are calling for Parliament to be recalled immediately," said Joanna Cherry, an M.P. for the Scottish National Party who led a cross-party group of more than 70 lawmakers who brought the case.

"You cannot break the law with impunity, Boris Johnson," she told Sky News "The rule of law will be upheld by Scotland's courts and I hope also the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom."

"We are disappointed by today's decision," a government spokesperson said. "The U.K. government needs to bring forward a strong domestic legislative agenda. Proroguing Parliament is the legal and necessary way of delivering this."

Following the decision, one lawmaker, the Labour Party's Kevin Brennan, tweeted a photograph of himself inside the House of Commons chamber.

M.P.s also blocked Johnson's attempt to call an early general election — one of the few ways to solve the deadlock. The opposition Labour Party has spent years calling for this, but now believes allowing Johnson to trigger one now would allow him to run down the clock beyond the Brexit deadline.

"This is about tactics in exactly the same way that the debate within the Democratic Party about impeachment is about tactics," said Anand Menon, politics professor and director of The U.K. in a Changing Europe, a London-based think tank.

"Everyone in the Democratic Party thinks President Trump should be impeached. They differ whether they should do it now. And whether doing it will be politically harmful or not."

Most experts say an early general election is still highly likely at some point, given that the opposition Labour Party says it wants one, and that the government doesn't have the parliamentary strength to prevent it.

But just because the election hasn't been officially called yet, that hasn't stopped Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn from campaigning as if it has.

Johnson visited a London high school Tuesday, pledging before the photo-op to create thousands more places for students across the country

Meanwhile Corbyn was in Brighton, announcing what he called "the biggest extension of rights for workers that our country has ever seen."

And as for Brexit? As it stands the U.K. leaves whether people like it or not at 11 p.m. on Oct. 31. The next few weeks should reveal whether that remains the case.