British Prime Minister Boris Johnson moved to limit parliament's opportunity to derail Brexit by cutting the amount of time it sits between now and EU exit day on Oct. 31, infuriating opponents who accused him of leading a "very British coup".
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. / Via REUTERS
Reuters | William James and Kate Holton
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In his boldest move yet to take the country out of the European Union with or without a divorce deal, Johnson said he would set Oct. 14 for the Queen's Speech - the formal state opening of a new session of parliament that is proceeded by a suspension of the House of Commons.
That would effectively shut parliament from mid-September for around a month. Raising the stakes in the constitutional crisis gripping Britain, it could also force Johnson's opponents to up their own game by calling a no-confidence vote in the government, potentially leading to an election.
The news sent the pound down sharply.
The Church of England said a chaotic EU exit would hurt the poor and fail to bring reconciliation or peace in a fractured country.
Asked in a broadcast interview if he was trying to block politicians from delaying Britain's departure from the EU, Johnson replied: "That is completely untrue".
"There will be ample time on both sides of that crucial October 17 (European Union leaders') summit, ample time in parliament for MPs (Members of Parliament) to debate the EU, to debate Brexit and all the other issues, ample time."
The move provoked outrage amongst Johnson's opponents and even some senior politicians in his own Conservative Party.
"Make no mistake, this is a very British coup," John McDonnell, the second most powerful man in the opposition Labour Party, said. "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."
More than three years after the United Kingdom voted 52% to 48% to quit the European Union, it is still unclear on what terms - or indeed whether - the bloc's second-largest economy will leave the club it joined in 1973.
With just 65 days until exit day, parliamentarians are battling to prevent the prime minister from steering the country out of the EU without a transition deal, pitching one of Europe's most stable countries into uncharted territory.
On Tuesday, the leaders of Britain's opposition parties had agreed to seek to use parliamentary procedure to force Johnson to ask Brussels for a delay to Brexit beyond Oct. 31. But with the prime minister finally showing his hand, they may try to bring him down instead.
With Johnson holding a working majority of just one seat in the 650-seat parliament, members of his Conservative Party who oppose a no-deal Brexit will have to decide where their loyalties lie.
"I think (a no-confidence vote) is more likely, because if it is impossible to prevent prorogation, then I think it's going to be very difficult for people like myself to keep confidence in the government," pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Dominic Grieve said, using an alternative term for the suspension of parliament.
While suspending parliament ahead of a Queen's Speech is the historical norm in Britain, the decision to limit parliamentary scrutiny weeks before the country's most contentious policy decision in decades prompted an immediate outcry.
Parliament's speaker John Bercow, a powerful figure who has shown a willingness to break procedural precedents in order to ensure lawmakers can debate Brexit fully, said it was "blindingly obvious" the move was designed to restrict debate.
"Shutting down Parliament would be an offence against the democratic process and the rights of Parliamentarians as the people’s elected representatives," Bercow, who voted to remain in the EU in 2016, said in a statement.
Philip Hammond, a member of Johnson's party and former finance minister who has pledged to block a disorderly Brexit, said it would be a constitutional outrage if parliament cannot hold the government to account.
Sterling fell sharply, losing around a cent against the U.S. dollar and the euro, as investors took the news as a sign that a no-deal Brexit, and the prospect of a hit to Britain's economy, was more likely.
Johnson argued, however, that the move was designed to allow his government to press on with its domestic agenda.
Typically, a Queen's Speech is held every year. Johnson is a new prime minister, who took over from Theresa May in July, and so would be expected to have his own legislative priorities.
He says he wants to agree a divorce deal with Brussels but needs the bloc to change its stance on a key sticking point around neighbor Ireland first. A leading campaigner in the 2016 Brexit referendum, he has also said Britain must leave the EU to maintain faith in politics.
Parliament returns from its summer break on Sept. 3 and had been expected to sit for two weeks before breaking up again to allow political parties to hold their annual conferences. Typically it begins sitting again in early October.
The Queen's Speech is the formal state opening of a new session of parliament at which Queen Elizabeth, 93, reads a speech prepared by the government.
A Queen's Speech on Oct. 14 would delay parliament's return and leave lawmakers with just over two weeks until Britain is due to leave the EU on Oct. 31. Those lawmakers opposed to a no-deal Brexit will likely have to make their response next week if they are to avoid running out of time.