Just one day after the British Supreme Court dealt the country’s prime minister a devastating blow, ruling that Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament was “unlawful, void and of no effect and should be quashed,” the lawmaking body of the United Kingdom is back in session.
The House of Commons engaged in a typically raucous debate on Wednesday over the terms of the country’s planned departure from the European Union, with a self-imposed Brexit deadline approaching at the end of next month.
“Anyone watching today’s proceedings and still thinking somewhere lurking there’s a clever and cunning plan to get through the chaos of the government’s own making needs to think again,” lawmaker Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary for the opposition Labour Party, said on the chamber floor. “For the government to be five weeks away from leaving the EU without a plan is unforgivable.”
Johnson himself returned to London on Wednesday, cutting short his trip to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly. Rather than mingling with world leaders, the prime minister plans to defend his moves on Brexit in a statement before Parliament on Wednesday evening.
Debate has centered on Operation Yellowhammer, the contingency plan developed by Johnson’s government to prepare for potentially leaving the EU without a deal to mitigate the effects of the departure. Members of Parliament moved earlier this month — shortly before their abortive suspension — to pass legislation barring the possibility of such an outcome, but the deadline for Brexit remains Oct. 31.
The legislation forces the prime minister to request an extension from the EU if an agreement is not reached by Oct. 19. Johnson has signaled reluctance to comply, saying he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit again.
Johnson’s allies adopted an aggressive tack in their approach to parliamentary discussions Wednesday.
“Parliament has to determine the terms on which we leave, but this Parliament has declined three times to pass a withdrawal act with which the opposition, in relation to the withdrawal act, had absolutely no objection,” said Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, to a churn of boos and jeers in the House of Commons.
He also noted Parliament’s rejection of Johnson’s call for snap elections.
“We have a wide number of this house setting its face against leaving at all, and when the government draws the only logical inference from that position — which is that it must leave therefore without any deal — it still sets its face, denying the electorate the chance of having its say in how this matter should be resolved,” Cox added. “This Parliament is a dead Parliament. It should no longer sit. It has no moral right to sit on these green benches.”
Johnson had sought to suspend Parliament for five weeks to buy himself more time to shape his Brexit agenda, intending to bring it to lawmakers when they returned to work in mid-October. But the Supreme Court blocked the move Tuesday, ruling that the move “was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification.”
The ruling elicited cheers from Johnson’s opposition — as well as calls for his resignation, including from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said Johnson has demonstrated “a contempt for democracy and an abuse of power” and ought to “become the shortest-serving prime minister there’s ever been.”
As for what they plan to do next, Johnson’s allies carefully watched their words in front of lawmakers. Martin Callanan, the minister of state for exiting the EU, said “the government will of course abide by the law” when it comes to requesting a delay if things come to that. But when pressed about a report that Johnson may send a second letter to the EU, along with the delay request, that would seek to dissuade the bloc from granting another delay, Callanan said, “We write all sorts of letters to all sorts of people, all of the time.”
“I’m sure letter-writing will continue even in [the event of] no deal,” he said. “And I can go no further that to repeat what I’ve said, which is of course we are a law-abiding government.”