It’s one thing to make up tabloid-style tales of bumbling European Union bureaucrats, as former colleagues say Boris Johnson routinely did when he was a journalist in Brussels years ago.
It’s another thing to mislead the public about how Brexit would supposedly benefit Britain’s struggling National Health Service, as critics say Johnson and his hard-charging fellow Brexiters did during the 2016 referendum campaign over whether to leave the EU.
But it would be quite, quite, quite another thing to deceive Her Majesty the Queen — to actually lie to the 93-year-old monarch’s face.
On Monday, a Scottish court ruled that the prime minister appeared to have done just that when he sought royal assent last month to suspend Parliament for five weeks. According to the sharply worded ruling, he was untruthful about his main motive for the suspension: to shut down debate over Brexit.
Johnson’s government immediately contested the finding, saying it will appeal to Britain’s Supreme Court. And it brushed aside demands by opposition politicians to call Parliament back into session.
The furor is about more than the shattering of another political taboo, which Johnson has already made something of a specialty during his short tenure as prime minister. It even goes beyond the 55-year-old British leader’s reputation for an elastic relationship with objective facts, as documented by multiple biographers.
Rather, the episode has to do with a deep reverence for customs of governance in a country that prides itself on its centuries-old democratic traditions, but whose constitution is unwritten. And it tests hallowed rituals of how British prime ministers interact with monarchs, who are meant to remain regally above the scrum of politics, so as to remain a unifying symbol of the entire nation.
As to how all this started: on Aug. 28, the prime minister paid a call on the queen at Balmoral, her Scottish castle, to formally request permission to “prorogue” — temporarily discontinue, in British parliamentary-speak — proceedings by the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
That move, usually a housekeeping formality, put Parliament out of action for most of the time remaining before the Oct. 31 deadline to leave the EU. The House of Commons adjourned in the early morning hours of Tuesday, the day after a bill took effect banning Johnson from taking the country out of the EU without a withdrawal accord with the bloc — a scenario many believe could carry catastrophic economic consequences.
Lawmakers routinely take a short break before a new parliamentary session that is opened with the Queen’s — or King’s — Speech, prepared remarks delivered by the monarch. But the hiatus Johnson engineered was the longest of its kind since 1945, and would leave almost no time for lawmakers to deliberate about how and whether to exit the EU on the deadline day.
Even at the time, Johnson’s move — denounced by critics as an anti-democratic abuse of power — also sparked controversy about whether he was improperly dragging the queen into the Brexit debate, because the timing and duration of the suspension he sought appeared so suspicious.
The relationship between the British monarch and the head of government is one of implicit trust. In weekly meetings, the queen takes advice from the prime minister — a practice depicted in the highly successful 2013 play “The Audience,” about Elizabeth’s dealings with six decades’ worth of British leaders — and might provide private counsel. But publicly, her role is strictly ceremonial.
When Johnson journeyed to Balmoral, some of his opponents expressed hopes that the queen would deny his suspension request — even while despairingly acknowledging that if she did, she would be voicing the implied political opinion that the prime minister was trying to pull a fast one.
It fell instead to Scotland’s Court of Session, its highest civil court, to make that judgment. And judge it did, after seeing documents that indicated Johnson planned weeks in advance to suspend Parliament in the run-up to the Brexit deadline, even while his government was denying that such a strategy was in the works to choke off debate.
In a blistering ruling, the three-member panel of jurists declared that the suspension of Parliament was unlawful because Johnson’s principal reasons for doing so were not those he stated: merely to make a fresh start with his new government’s domestic parliamentary agenda.
One judge, James Drummond Young, wrote that “the only inference that could be drawn” was that Johnson acted in order to stymie lawmakers’ ability to declaw his threat to carry out a no-deal Brexit. Another, Philip Brodie, called it “an egregious case of a clear failure to comply with generally accepted standards of behavior of public authorities.”
The ruling prompted an immediate outcry. Former attorney general Dominic Grieve — one of 21 Conservative lawmakers ejected from the party last week after breaking with Johnson in Brexit-related parliamentary votes — told the BBC that if Johnson is definitively found to have misled the queen, he should immediately resign.
The Supreme Court was expected to take up the case next week.
With lawmakers having denied Johnson’s bid to hold an early election before the Brexit deadline, which might help him regain a parliamentary majority, the prime minister is left with limited options.
There’s been no word of a breakthrough in attempts to broker a new deal with the EU, and Johnson has said he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than seek a delay beyond Oct. 31.
The EU, publicly at least, is holding onto hopes of avoiding a chaotic no-deal Brexit. On Wednesday, the famously methodical German Chancellor Angela Merkel told lawmakers that she still believed such an outcome was possible, despite the tumult in Britain.
“It is my firm conviction that we still have a chance to achieve this in an orderly way,” she told German lawmakers.
But Merkel did not hazard a guess as to how that might happen.