LONDON — In Britain’s long history, telling false tales to the monarch has often been a bad play. Fabricators could lose favor — or their heads.
And so Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave the correct answer when asked Thursday by reporters if he had lied to Queen Elizabeth II about his reasons for wanting to suspend Parliament ahead of his promised “do or die” Brexit at the end of October.
“Absolutely not,” said Johnson, speaking with the British press during a visit to a lighthouse-tending ship docked in the Thames River.
The embattled prime minister was specifically asked about a Scottish high-court opinion Wednesday that found his request to suspend Parliament was “unlawful.”
A panel of Scottish judges ruled the Johnson government had been misleading — perhaps even to the monarch — about its true motivation for the five-week halt.
The Scottish judges said the timeout “had the purpose of stymying Parliament” ahead of the latest deadline for Britain to leave the European Union.
Johnson on Thursday denied this was so. The prime minister said he suspended this Parliament — filled with vexatious rebels, including within his party — so he could craft a new Conservative Party legislative agenda full of bold new proposals, such as swelling the ranks of the police force and funding care for the infirm and elderly.
But many lawmakers weren’t buying it.
Johnson’s suspension of Parliament — what’s called a prorogation — is the longest in almost a century. And it is happening in the middle of what is arguably Britain’s worst peacetime crisis since World War II.
Even Johnson’s fellow Tories say the prime minister is playing politics — and trying to outflank moves to block a general election and stop a no-deal Brexit.
On Thursday, Johnson said, “I’m very hopeful that we will get a deal” at a crucial E.U. summit in late October. “I think we can see the rough area of a landing space, of how you can do it — it will be tough, it will be hard, but I think we can get there.”
He said there would still be plenty of time for lawmakers to argue about Brexit when Parliament resumes Oct. 14. British lawmakers and European negotiators are less sure about that.
The legal wrangling is far from over.
A high court in Northern Ireland on Thursday dismissed the claim that a no-deal Brexit and the imposition of a hard border on the Irish island would wreck the peace process there. The court said the matter was political and not legal. It didn’t consider the question of whether Johnson’s suspension Parliament was unlawful.
On Tuesday, the British Supreme Court will wrestle with the question of whether Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament can be scrutinized by any judge, following opposing decisions by two of the country’s high courts, in Scotland and England.
In Brussels, Britain’s top Brexit negotiator, David Frost, has been making very non-newsy, twice-weekly visits for discussions with his European counterparts. But anxious E.U. diplomats say talks actually seem to be moving backward.
“If solutions are proposed, they will be debated, all of them — provided they respect the guiding principles of the E.U.,” said European Parliament President David Sassoli. “But up to now, I can say the U.K. hasn’t proposed any alternatives, anything that’s been legally credible and workable.”
Frost has suggested nothing would meet the E.U. red line that the border remain forever open between the Republic of Ireland, which is staying in the European Union, and Northern Ireland, which is departing along with the rest of Britain, diplomats said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door talks.
Instead, the diplomats said, Frost has outlined a vision of a Britain that could potentially try to lure businesses by undercutting the European Union in a range of areas, including taxes and regulations. That would require a sharp break from current rules — making the Europeans ever more adamant about ironclad guarantees for the Irish border.
“We need a serious partner, not just someone who is screaming slogans, mottos, in the best Trumpian form,” said one of the diplomats. “We are really nervous because we can’t see what is coming from London. There are no serious discussions.”
Few in Brussels are taking for granted that Johnson will obey the law passed by Parliament that he ask for a delay to the Oct. 31 departure date if he doesn’t strike a deal in the meantime.
Instead, embassies have canceled vacations for their diplomats in late October; emergency preparations for a chaotic, no-deal Brexit have stepped up; and many in the E.U. capital are bracing for what one diplomat called “the most horrible crisis of recent years.”
Johnson’s remarks came as his government was forced to release a five-page document assessing the impact of a no-deal Brexit. The document — which was previously leaked and reported on — predicted there could be days-long delays of trucks moving through British and French ports, electricity prices might spike, some medicines would be in short supply, food prices would rise, and there could be a rise in public disorder.
On Thursday, Johnson also told a group of schoolchildren about his idea of building a bridge across the Irish Sea between Scotland and Northern Ireland. “It would only cost about £15 billion,” or $18.5 billion, he said.
Johnson suggested the megaproject — which he has asked government officials to investigate from a feasibility standpoint — could help ameliorate Brexit woes.
“There is so much more we can do, and what grieves me about the current approach to Brexit is that we are just in danger of not believing in ourselves, not believing in Britain,” the prime minister said.
Birnbaum reported from Brussels.