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Britain Heads Into Mother of All Battles in Parliament

Anti-Brexit protesters wave European Union flags outside the Cabinet Office in London, Aug. 30, 2019.

Britain's politicians are gearing up for what is being dubbed the mother of all battles in the mother of parliaments — a clash that could reshape Britain's democracy for decades to come by deciding whether the House of Commons or the government has the upper political hand.

The outcome of the high-stakes parliamentary tussle next week over how, when and even whether Britain leaves the European Union is redefining the relationship among the country's main governing bodies, the House of Commons, Downing Street and the monarchy, constitutional experts say. The country's traditional constitutional practices are already fraying, they warn.

Opposition party leaders and pro-EU Conservative rebels, who have been at loggerheads for weeks on what strategy to pursue to stop Prime Minister Boris Johnson from leading Britain out of the EU, are planning to try to seize control of parliamentary business from the government in order to draft legislation forbidding him from leaving the bloc.

Johnson's opponents hope to pass legislation binding the Conservative government from departing the EU without a deal on Oct. 31, something the prime minister has pledged to do, if he is unable to secure a new exit agreement replacing one his predecessor, Theresa May, negotiated with Brussels. Her deal incurred the wrath of both pro-EU lawmakers and Brexiters and was rejected three times by Parliament.

FILE - Britain's Queen Elizabeth II welcomes Boris Johnson, then newly-elected leader of the Conservative party, during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London, England, July 24, 2019.
FILE - Britain's Queen Elizabeth II welcomes Boris Johnson, then newly-elected leader of the Conservative party, during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London, England, July 24, 2019.

Both sides of the Brexit dispute are playing fast and loose with the constitution, legal experts say. "It seems to be getting very close to a constitutional crisis," Anthony Seldon, a political writer and vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said in an interview with Sky News television. "We are in this very, very uncertain stage."

Thanks to Johnson's decision to suspend Parliament — normally a routine break to allow the government to draw up plans for a new legislative agenda — pro-EU lawmakers have just three days to pass emergency legislation, an almost unheard of brief time to steer legislation through the Commons and House of Lords.

Length, timing of suspension

Johnson midweek gained Queen Elizabeth's assent for a monthlong parliamentary suspension, known as a prorogation. He and his ministers said it wasn't done to limit the time his opponents have to thwart his promise to leave the EU by the end of October, "do or die."

But the unusual length of suspension — normally prorogation is just for two weeks — as well as its timing have provoked a political firestorm with critics, including the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. He accuses Johnson of devising a cynical ploy aimed at subverting the Commons, and of even mounting "a very British coup."

Downing Street dismissed the accusation, saying lawmakers were hyperventilating. Johnson said he must lead Britain out of the EU to restore trust in democracy and to put into effect the wishes of the British majority that voted for Brexit in a referendum three years ago.

The leader of Britain's main Labor opposition party, Jeremy Corbyn, has urged party members to protest Saturday in 10 British cities and to "shut down the streets" and "occupy bridges." In an email to Labor lawmakers, Corbyn said, "I am encouraging MPs to join public protests opposing this shutdown of Parliament."

Midweek, in the hours after the prorogation was announced, there were ugly scenes in Westminster outside Parliament, with several thousand pro- and anti-Brexit campaigners brawling.

Johnson said Friday that despite his decision to suspend Parliament for nearly five weeks beginning Sept. 9, lawmakers would have "a lot of time" to debate between Oct. 14 and Oct. 31. He said, "We're coming up to the last period before we leave on 31 October and, in that period, Parliament is going to have a lot of time, still — they've spent three years debating Brexit without actually getting it over the line — they're going to have a lot of time for further consideration."

Defense minister's remarks

But hours after the queen assented to Parliament’s being shuttered at Johnson's request, the country's defense minister, Ben Wallace, was caught on camera in conversation with his French counterpart admitting the suspension was motivated by Brexit and aimed at constricting the time for parliamentary debate. He was unaware, apparently, that the microphones were switched on.

FILE: A pro-Brexit supporter is seen outside the Parliament in London.
FILE: A pro-Brexit supporter is seen outside the Parliament in London.

"This is really a dark time for this country," said Bob Kerslake, a former head of Britain's civil service. "This is playing fast and loose with our constitution. This is a reckless and divisive act by the prime minister." He warned that suspending Parliament risked undermining "faith in parliamentary democracy" and believed the manner in which parliament was being suspended might be illegal. "It's deliberate to frustrate a process of [parliamentary] debate," he said.

A Scottish court Friday declined to issue an interim order halting the prorogation but will hear a full case next week against the shuttering of Parliament, which is being mounted by opposition politicians. Seventy-five lawmakers have asked the court to lift the prorogation, dubbing it "unlawful" and arguing the queen is not above the law.

Pro-EU campaigners and lawmakers have also filed a blocking action with the High Court in London. Leading lawyers believe, though, the courts will be reluctant to challenge a prorogation, fearing they'll be undermining the queen's prerogative powers and risk the judges being drawn into partisan politics.

Bercow, who recently vowed to "fight with every breath in my body" to stop Johnson from suspending Parliament, is expected to grant an emergency debate Tuesday at the request of pro-EU lawmakers, and others who don't want to exit the bloc without a deal. That would enable them to wrest control of parliamentary business from the government.

If they succeed, they would have a handful of days to pass legislation forbidding Johnson from quitting the EU without a deal or to pass a motion calling on the queen to reverse her decision to suspend Parliament.

Some legal experts, including the Commons clerks who advise the speaker, say either move would likely be "unconstitutional." The speaker, though, will overrule their advice, according to sources close to Bercow.

Small window of opportunity

Next week could be the "only opportunity" the Commons has to stop Johnson, according to David Gauke, a former justice minister and a leading member of pro-EU Conservative rebels. He acknowledged the options for his fellow and opposition party leaders had "now narrowed."

The Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London, a day before the ceremonial funeral for former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
The Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London, a day before the ceremonial funeral for former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Among their plans is for Parliament to sit Sept. 7-8. The Commons has rarely sat on a Saturday since 1939, but did so on the outbreak of World War II, during the Suez crisis of 1956 and during the Falklands War in 1982.

How the tussle will play out next week is anyone's guess, political commentators have said. But one influential research group, the Institute for Government, said in an assessment Friday that it was a "near impossible task for MPs to stop a prime minister who's determined to leave the EU without a deal."

The institute said it was more likely that Johnson's opponents would have to resort to passing a vote of no-confidence in the government, triggering a likely general election or opening up the opportunity for Labor's Corbyn to head a government of national unity.

A leading pro-EU Conservative rebel, Ken Clarke, a former Cabinet minister during Margaret Thatcher's administration, said Thursday that he would be prepared to back a Corbyn government, if it were "the only way" to stop a no-deal Brexit.

Speaking to Sky News, Clarke said, "So long as we were absolutely certain we could keep Jeremy under control and he would not have any chance of implementing any bits of his manifesto, I hate to tell you that I probably would [back him as prime minister]."

Others reluctant

But other Conservative rebels and Liberal Democrats have said they'd be highly reluctant to do so. The speaker is reported to have told lawmakers that if the government did collapse following a no-confidence vote, he would help install a government of national unity and assist in engineering Johnson's ouster.

Downing Street officials told The Sunday Times that the government had sought legal opinion about whether Johnson would have to resign in the event he lost a vote of no confidence, and whether the appointment by the queen of a new prime minister could be challenged in the courts. "I doubt any modern British government has ever sought such legal opinion before," a senior government official acknowledged to VOA.

Johnson's aides are drawing up plans for a possible snap election — one they said he’d couch as an election to decide who rules: the people or Parliament.