A scant nine weeks before Britain is due to exit the European Union, Boris Johnson has made his first big power play as prime minister — one that heightens the prospects of a chaotic departure, a bruising general election, or both.
The 55-year-old leader’s decision Wednesday to suspend Parliament as soon as Sept. 9 came in the guise of what would normally be a dull procedural formality. But with Brexit coming down to the wire, Johnson’s critics are calling it an assault on the country’s unwritten constitution and traditions — “a very British coup,” as one opposition leader put it.
“It’s utterly remarkable,” said Michael Gordon, professor of constitutional law at the University of Liverpool. “Fascinating and infuriating in equal measure.”
In effect, it’s a fight over what has become an explosive timetable. The pro-Brexit prime minister’s move narrows the already tight window during which lawmakers could seek to prevent Britain leaving the EU without a negotiated withdrawal agreement.
Johnson insists he still wants to strike a deal with the bloc — although time is growing very short — but consistently couples that with the threat that the split will go forward whether or not an accord is in place.
A no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31, the designated departure date, would probably cause enormous upheaval, snarling traffic at ports, abruptly severing supply chains and triggering shortages of some food and medicines. In the longer term, economists have predicted such a split could tip Britain into a deep recession and put a powerful drag on the global economy.
Even for a politician whose hallmark is risk-taking, Johnson’s strategy represents a major gamble. He holds only a one-seat working majority in the 650-member Parliament. And even within the ranks of his own party, there are a number of lawmakers who back Brexit but oppose a no-deal departure, and could join in a move against him.
In pushing for Brexit at all costs, the prime minister claims he is carrying out a mandate from British voters, who in June 2016 narrowly approved a referendum to split from the other 27 EU nations. But Johnson’s critics say the public never had a chance to say yes or no to the idea of “crashing out” of the bloc with no accord governing relations going forward.
The prime minister’s dramatic move came only days after a meeting with President Trump at the Group of 7 summit in Biarritz, France. Trump, who has enthusiastically backed both Brexit and Johnson, repeated his pledge to strike a big new trade deal with Britain once the split is finalized.
But the president would probably encounter sharp opposition in Congress if Brexit is carried out in a way that creates a “hard” border between Ireland, which is part of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, thus threatening a fragile peace.
Trump inserted himself into the latest Brexit contretemps, disregarding the long-standing norm of U.S. presidents staying out of democratic allies’ domestic politics. On Wednesday, he tweeted an attack on Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labor Party, who vowed to seek a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s government.
It would be “very hard” for Corbyn to challenge Johnson’s standing, Trump wrote on Twitter, “in light of the fact that Boris is exactly what the U.K. has been looking for, & will prove to be ‘a great one!’”
The president added: “Love U.K.”
Johnson, keeping to his customary political playbook, expressed befuddled innocence when accused of using a procedural maneuver to prevent lawmakers from weighing a Brexit delay. “That is completely untrue,” he said, reeling off a list of his new government’s top priorities, including matters like policing and schools.
Lawmakers, he said, had plenty of time to debate.
The prime minister’s move effectively shuts down Parliament starting sometime between Sept. 9-12, giving it a few days’ grace for finalizing any legislative loose ends. It won’t come back until Oct. 14, which Johnson set for an event known as the Queen’s Speech, in which the monarch reads out prepared remarks to open a new session of Parliament.
That will be only three days before a crunch EU summit, and Brexit will be only 17 days away.
The queen agreed to Johnson’s timetable, which is the usual royal response to a sitting prime minister’s request, but opposition leaders are asking her to reconsider. The notion of the traditionally apolitical monarch being dragged into the dispute, even peripherally, is a distressing prospect for Britons who hold dear her role as a unifying symbol.
Former Conservative lawmaker Anna Soubry, who broke with her party over Brexit, called Johnson’s actions “an abuse of Her Majesty the Queen.”
The political battle is expected to be rejoined when lawmakers return Tuesday from their summer break. A successful no-confidence vote against Johnson could trigger a general election, but it would be difficult to organize before the EU departure date of Oct. 31. If successful, Corbyn could try to form a new government and secure a temporary Brexit delay.
If Johnson prevailed in a no-confidence vote, he could continue to govern, and also call an election meant to cement his power in the wake of Brexit.
In the meantime, the prime minister’s political opponents called his tactics a blow not only to the powers of Parliament, but to the country’s democratic system as a whole.
“Make no mistake, this is a very British coup,” said John McDonnell, the No. 2 in the Labor Party leadership. “Whatever one’s views on Brexit, once you allow a prime minister to prevent the full and free operation of our democratic institutions you are on a very precarious path.”
The uproar highlighted tensions with Scotland, where the turbulent Brexit process has fueled a movement to secede from the United Kingdom. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said this could go down in history as “the day democracy died,” and described Johnson as behaving like a “dictator.”
European presidents and prime ministers generally took a hands-off approach to the debate over Johnson’s move, describing it as an internal British matter, but some EU lawmakers called it a worrying sign of the new British leader’s anti-democratic tendencies.
Guy Verhofstadt, the Brexit coordinator for the European Parliament, took to Twitter to express solidarity with British lawmakers. “Suppressing debate on profound choices is unlikely to help deliver a stable future EU-UK relationship,” he wrote.
Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and Times staff writer King from Washington.