1. Was Johnson within his rights to suspend Parliament?
In principle, yes. Closing out a session of Parliament, known as proroguing, happens routinely at the end of every legislative session. It’s the prerogative of the monarch, but exercised on the advice of the prime minister. Queen Elizabeth II agreed to Johnson’s request on Aug. 28. That meant that Parliament, which returned from its summer vacation on Sept. 3, shut down just a week later. It’s now set to reconvene on Oct. 14, when the Queen will reopen it with a speech setting out the government’s legislative priorities.
2. What’s the issue, then?
The timing of this particular proroguing was highly controversial, since it stalled Parliament during the crucial countdown to Brexit. The U.K. is still scheduled to leave the EU on Oct. 31. However, Parliament did manage to pass a law preventing the country from exiting on that date if no deal is in place to ease the economic and social shock. Civil servants are duty-bound to keep the monarch out of any political or constitutional controversy. But when the idea of an early suspension was being discussed, there were questions about whether the Queen should agree, since the level of Johnson’s support in Parliament hadn’t been tested.
3. Where does this leave Brexit?
If the U.K. and EU don’t reach a negotiated transition agreement by Oct. 19, Johnson is now required to seek an extension, likely until Jan. 31, 2020. The prime minister has promised to continue negotiating with Brussels, but has also said he’d prefer to be “dead in a ditch” than to ask for more time. Members of Parliament are worried he may try to find ways to evade the law requiring a deal.
4. What’s happening in the courts?
A number of people have tried to challenge the prorogation on legal grounds, with mixed results. A judge in Scotland on Sept. 4 refused to block Johnson’s plan in a case brought by more than 70 lawmakers, saying the courts shouldn’t interfere with the political process. A similar case was dismissed on Sept. 6 by a panel of three judges in London. Neither ruling specifically resolved the legality of Johnson’s action, but a Scottish appeals court on Sept. 11 dramatically raised the stakes by ruling unanimously that the prorogation was an “unlawful” move to stymie Parliament.
5. What did the Scottish court say?
The three-judge panel was considering an appeal of the Sept. 4 Scottish ruling, in which a lower court had declared the actions of the prime minister a political matter not subject to judicial review. The higher court concluded otherwise, saying Johnson’s move was motivated by the “improper purpose” of stymieing Parliament and failed to comply with “generally accepted standards of behavior of public authorities.” The government immediately appealed, setting up a showdown at the country’s top tribunal starting Sept. 17. In a multi-day hearing, 11 judges at the U.K. Supreme Court must reconcile the conflicting judgments of the lower courts.
6. What could happen as a result?
Parliament remains suspended pending the legal battle, but Johnson’s official spokesman says the government “will abide” by the Supreme Court’s decision. If the judges concur that the prorogation was unlawful, Parliament would return and take up further official business. That could afford legislators additional time to debate Brexit and perhaps to pass laws further constraining Johnson.
7. How could this become a constitutional crisis?
Britain doesn’t have a written constitution, an arrangement that has worked well enough in normal times. Governance relies instead on precedent. But with the country and Parliament deeply divided on Brexit and the government having lost its slim majority, the unwritten rules are being tested. It’s not normal practice for the prime minister to prorogue Parliament strategically to prevent it from taking action or from interfering with his plans. The idea conjures up images of the 17th-century English Civil War, when King Charles I tried to enforce his will on Parliament. That’s why opponents say suspending Parliament to let the government get its way is undemocratic.
8. Are there other legal issues?
Advisers to Johnson have reportedly strategized about ways the government might get around the law that prevents the prime minister from taking the U.K. out of Europe without a deal and that requires him to request a Brexit extension. Such a move, if the government attempted it, would set up further furious legal battles over the power of the prime minister to evade the will of Parliament. To that end, British entrepreneur Dale Vince filed a petition on Sept. 12 in Scotland that seeks to force Johnson to comply with Parliament’s new Brexit law. Speculation has also arisen that a ruling against Johnson by the Supreme Court might force him to resign if he was shown to have misled the Queen about the legality of the prorogation.
--With assistance from Jonathan Browning.
To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Hutton in London at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at email@example.com, Andy Reinhardt, Chris Kay