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Britain on Election Footing as Crisis Pits Parliament vs. Prime Minister

Anti-Brexit demonstrators stand outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Sept. 9, 2019.

Britain is getting set for a general election likely to be held in November, as the political crisis over the country’s exit from the European Union deepens.

The British parliament was officially suspended or “prorogued” in the early hours of Tuesday, just weeks before the country is due to crash out of the European Union. Opposition lawmakers have branded the move a coup by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and have vowed to take him to court if he refuses to request a Brexit extension from the European Union.

Britain is scheduled to leave the bloc Oct. 31, although legislation passed last week by opposition MPs seeks to force the prime minister to ask Brussels for an extension to the Brexit process if no exit deal can be reached.

Britain on Election Footing as Crisis Pits Parliament vs. Prime Minister
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The political stalemate must be broken soon, says Stephen Booth, acting director of the Open Europe policy group in London.

“Clearly we are gearing up for a general election at some time or other, probably in November now. And I think increasingly everything is going to be framed in those terms. Which is one of the reasons why (opposition Labour leader) Jeremy Corbyn and the anti no-deal MPs are quite keen to see Boris Johnson sent to Brussels in a humiliating fashion to ask for an extension,” Booth said.

Johnson says Brexit will happen

Boris Johnson joined lessons at a London primary school Tuesday, announcing new investment in education widely seen as a warmup for an election campaign.

“I think we will get a deal (with the EU). But if absolutely necessary we will come out with no deal,” the prime minister told reporters.

Opposition MPs have warned they will take Johnson to court if he refuses to ask for an extension. The government is looking for an escape route, says analyst Booth.

“One is simply refusing to comply and seeing what happens in terms of any court cases or legal action that might happen,” he said.

A piece of paper with the word "silenced" sits on the British Parliament speaker's chair at the House of Commons, in protest of the House's suspension, in London, Sept. 10, 2019.
A piece of paper with the word "silenced" sits on the British Parliament speaker's chair at the House of Commons, in protest of the House's suspension, in London, Sept. 10, 2019.

Parliament suspended

For now Parliament has been silenced, much to the indignation of opposition lawmakers.

At 2 a.m. Tuesday several MPs interrupted the suspension ceremony by trying to physically restrain the speaker from leaving his chair. Others held up protest banners and shouted “Shame on you!” at ruling Conservative MPs.

The government will likely frame any election campaign as the people versus an intransigent parliament trying to overturn the Brexit referendum, says Catherine Barnard, professor of European Union Law at the University of Cambridge.

“There’s a real irony about this of course because in the referendum a lot of people said they voted leave because they wanted to take back control to the Westminster parliament. And now what we’re seeing, the narrative that’s being developed, is direct democracy through referendum versus representative democracy through MPs,” Barnard says.

In Brussels, the European Union Tuesday began appointing a new team of commissioners. Even if Britain asks for an extension, some EU members could veto it, Booth says.

“We’ve heard certain noises from particularly the French government, and I think that is indicative of a growing frustration in the European Union of sort of, ‘We are open to an extension but what is the plan?’”

In Ireland, there are fears that any border checks resulting from Brexit could spark a return to sectarian violence. Such concerns were underlined Monday as dissident Republicans attacked police with petrol bombs in Londonderry, a reminder that the implications of Brexit go far beyond the theatrics of Westminster.