LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced defections from senior Conservative lawmakers Thursday as a backlash built and opponents planned legal challenges to his decision to suspend Parliament to push his Brexit plans.
The resignation of Ruth Davidson, who quit her role as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, along with a senior Conservative in the House of Lords, was a sign of rising worry within Johnson’s ranks that the move to suspend Parliament was sidelining Britain’s elected representatives during one of the biggest political crises in generations.
Elsewhere in Europe, policymakers were jolted by the move to suspend Parliament for five weeks, which some of them said brought Britain closer to a sudden, cliff-edge Brexit that analysts say could spark food and medicine shortages. Some diplomats said they were increasingly convinced Johnson would stop at little in a risky gambit to force both Europe and his own rebellious lawmakers into a compromise.
The resignations came after protesters jammed streets in cities around the country, including London, Edinburgh and Manchester. Outside Parliament, demonstrators chanted “Stop the coup!” A petition calling for the government to stop the suspension surged past 1.5 million signatures. Johnson’s adversaries promised to appeal his move in the courts. Brexit opponents were strategizing about how to use their dwindling time in Parliament to halt the relentless move toward an uncontrolled break from Europe.
Johnson sparked a torrent of criticism with his decision to ask Queen Elizabeth II to suspend Parliament for five weeks, dramatically shortening the time lawmakers have to try to block a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson has said Britain will leave the European Union by Oct. 31 with or without a deal. The majority of lawmakers in the House of Commons are opposed to leaving the bloc without a transition deal to smooth the way.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that when Parliament reconvenes after summer break Tuesday, he will move immediately to pass legislation to keep the chamber open and to prevent a no-deal Brexit. He joined other opposition leaders in issuing a joint statement Thursday evening demanding a vote on suspending Parliament.
“We will be back in Parliament on Tuesday to challenge Boris Johnson on what I think is a smash-and-grab raid against our democracy,” he told Sky News. “What we’re going to do is try to politically stop him on Tuesday with a parliamentary process in order to legislate to prevent a no-deal Brexit and also to try and prevent him shutting down Parliament during this utterly crucial period.”
Opposition lawmakers will have to move fast if they are to have a chance at success. Once Parliament is suspended — in this case no later than Sept. 12 — any legislation in the pipeline is typically killed off, and lawmakers would have to start again from scratch when Parliament resumes Oct. 14.
In Davidson’s careful resignation letter, the charismatic leader avoided linking her move directly to Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament, instead focusing on family issues. But she also mentioned the “conflict I have felt over Brexit,” and the British media quickly linked the departure to Johnson’s strategy, given the timing. Davidson has also previously been lukewarm on Johnson — she supported his rivals in the leadership contest — and in the 2016 E.U. referendum she memorably clashed with Johnson, claiming that his pro-Brexit side had told a series of lies.
Davidson resigned from her post as leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, which she had held for eight years, but said she would stay on as a member of the Scottish Parliament. Her departure from the leadership role is a major blow for the Conservative Party, whose fortunes she helped to turn around in an area of Britain where the Conservative Party was for decades a toxic brand.
Davidson’s resignation came shortly after that of George Young, a former cabinet minister who left his post as a government whip in the House of Lords.
Johnson’s move “risks undermining the fundamental role of Parliament at a critical time in our history,” and reinforces the view that the Government may not have the confidence of the House for its Brexit policy,” Young wrote.
On Thursday, David Lidington, the effective deputy prime minister in the previous administration of Theresa May — who remains a nominal ally of Johnson — said the suspension was “not a good way to do democracy” and “sets a very bad precedent for future governments.” He told the BBC that if the opposition Labour Party had done something similar, “some of my Tory colleagues who are cheering at the moment would be turning purple with rage.”
Other opponents are hoping to use the courts to stop Johnson from suspending Parliament. A cross-party group of more than 70 lawmakers took their legal challenge Thursday to Scotland’s highest civil court. Gina Miller, the business executive who in 2017 won a high-profile legal challenge over how the British government could start the Brexit process, has filed an application at the High Court in London seeking an urgent review of Johnson’s decision.
Johnson’s government insists that it is not doing anything unusual and that it is normal for a new prime minister to suspend Parliament ahead of the queen’s speech presenting the country’s legislative agenda.
It generally does happen every year, but the length of the suspension — the longest since 1945 — and the timing have drawn widespread criticism.
Johnson’s allies — the ones who were not quitting — were quick to dismiss the concerns Thursday.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, brushed off what he called the “candyfloss of outrage” over the temporary shuttering of the legislature, using the British term for cotton candy. “I don’t think there is any attempt to railroad,” he told the BBC on Thursday, insisting Johnson simply wanted to get on with his domestic agenda.
But one top Johnson lieutenant, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, was caught on camera acknowledging that Johnson was struggling to push through Brexit without a majority.
“Parliament has been very good at saying what it doesn’t want. It has been awful at saying what it wants. That’s the reality. So eventually any leader has to, you know, try,” Wallace explained to French Defense Minister Florence Parly, caught on camera ahead of an unrelated meeting in Helsinki.
A government spokesman said later that Wallace “misspoke.”
The British Parliament voted down the Brexit deal three times, mostly because of the “backstop,” an insurance plan that would guarantee an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to prevent a return to violence there. Under the plan, the United Kingdom risks getting stuck inside the European Customs Union, limiting its ability to conduct independent trade deals.
European leaders were mostly quiet about the British drama, wary of being sucked into a domestic political dispute and already skeptical about the chances that Britain would manage to agree to a transition deal before it departed. One senior diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive assessments, said that because a no-deal departure was the default expectation for many E.U. policymakers, the fight over Parliament actually felt like a distraction.
And in Germany, one prominent ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated that Johnson’s tactics may be hardening attitudes against him.
“If the rationale was to scare the #EU into renegotiation by removing #parliament as the final obstacle to #NoDeal #Brexit, the #UK government has been gravely misled,” the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Norbert Röttgen, wrote on Twitter. “The executive denying parliament its democratic say at this decisive moment, cannot be rewarded by the EU.”
Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.