Facing a chamber packed with hooting and jeering lawmakers, Johnson said Britain’s highest court was “wrong to pronounce on what is essentially a political question at a time of great national controversy.”
Rather than apologize to the queen and the country, as opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn demanded, Johnson went on the offensive, saying it was anti-Brexit forces in Parliament who were working against democracy, with their cunning maneuvers designed to sabotage a departure and thwart the will of the people.
“Instead of deciding to let the voters decide, they ran to the courts,” Johnson accused.
Pointing at Corbyn across the dispatch boxes, Johnson asked: “Is he going to dodge a vote of no confidence in me as prime minister in order to escape the verdict of the voters? Does he in his heart even want to be prime minister anymore?”
“What are they scared of?” Johnson wondered aloud, turning then to the smaller opposition parties — the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party — and asking whether any of them might “fancy a go?”
Corbyn rose to call Johnson “a dangerous prime minister who thinks he’s above the law.”
Corbyn, the 70-year-old socialist who would run as Labour’s standard-bearer, raised his chin toward Johnson, saying: “I want a general election. If he wants an election, get an extension and let’s have an election.”
Corbyn wants to avoid an abrupt and chaotic exit from the European Union on Oct. 31 without a deal to manage the withdrawal — as Johnson has threatened.
There’s also a political calculation. Corbyn wants to keep Johnson locked in a kind of limbo — neither letting him fulfill his promise to bust loose from the E.U., nor letting him dissolve the government and potentially win back a majority in an election.
Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a think tank, said Labour’s play is a good short-term strategy. “Boris is twisting in the wind,” Grant said. “He’s in office, but not in power. He can’t pass legislation. He can’t call an election.”
But Grant said that if it goes on for too long “it might damage Labour — people will say, ‘It’s ridiculous. We’re not being governed. We need a proper government, and that requires an election.’ ”
The calendar is challenging. If a no-confidence vote were held this week, lawmakers would have until the second week of October to form a viable alternative government. By then, they would be just days away from when the prime minister — whoever is in the job — is by law supposed to ask the E.U. for an extension.
Corbyn would no doubt prefer Johnson to be the one to have to ask for another delay, breaking his “do or die” pledge. That would spare Corbyn from being accused of “dither and delay” in a coming election.
But opposition parties would also be wary that if a no-confidence vote succeeded now, Britain could face the Brexit deadline at a moment when it’s not clear who is in charge.
The earliest an election could happen would be mid-November.
And so the prime minister and Parliament are likely to continue to clash in the weeks to come.
Wednesday was one of the most raucous sessions in recent memory, with Conservative Party members bursting into applause — this is very much against the rules — and opposition backbenchers shouting at Johnson to resign.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who had advised Johnson that the suspension of Parliament was legal, brushed aside calls for his own ouster, saying, “If I was called upon to resign every time I lost a case, I’d never have a practice.”
Cox then exploded at lawmakers for their inaction.
“This is a dead Parliament,” he said. “It has no moral right to sit on these green benches.”
“But the time is coming,” he warned, his booming voice rising above the wild cheering and jeering. “The time is coming, Mr. Speaker, when even these turkeys won’t be able to prevent Christmas!”
Labour lawmaker Barry Sheerman later rose and, with beet-red face, stabbing his finger toward Cox, shouted: “No shame today! No shame at all! . . . For a man like him, a party like this, and a leader like this — this prime minister — to talk about morals and morality is a disgrace.”
For his part, Johnson called the gathering “a zombie parliament” with an “obsessive desire to overrule the referendum result.”
“I thought we were coming to hear a statement on the Supreme Court judgment,” said Joanna Cherry, a Scottish National Party lawmaker who helped launch the case. “But instead we’ve been treated to the sort of populist rant one expects to hear from the leader of a tin-pot dictatorship or perhaps the current president of the States.”
Johnson repeatedly called the bill that will require him to seek a Brexit delay a “surrender act” and was taken to task for his use of “inflammatory” language.
Paula Sherriff, a Labour lawmaker, said many politicians were “subject to death threats and abuse every single day and let me tell the prime minister that they often quote his words ‘surrender act, betrayal, traitor.’ ”
The man who murdered pro-E.U. British lawmaker Jo Cox in 2016 had described her as a “traitor.”
Johnson responded to Sherriff that he had “never heard such humbug in all my life.”
House Speaker John Bercow tried to calm the ensuing scenes, shouting “Order!” no less than 12 times in a row.