Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson flatly denied Thursday that he lied to Britain’s monarch when asking Queen Elizabeth to suspend parliament for five weeks in the run-up to a Brexit deadline — a controversial suspension that’s being challenged in the country’s courts and drawing reluctant judges deep into political waters.
Asked if he had lied to the Queen when advising her to prorogue [suspend] Parliament, and whether he had misled her about his reasons for wanting a suspension, he replied: “Absolutely not.” He said it was “nonsense” to suggest the prorogation was anything out of the ordinary or a bid to undermine democracy.
His comments came hours after after a three-judge Scottish court ruled that his government's advice to the Queen, which led to the five-week prorogation that started Monday, was “unlawful” because it basically disguised the government’s true reason for wanting a parliamentary shutdown.
The Scottish ruling sent shock waves through Britain’s already Brexit-battered political system and has set the stage for a dramatic legal showdown on Tuesday. This is when the country’s Supreme Court will have to decide whether the Scottish ruling is correct — or whether instead to uphold two opposed rulings from English and Northern Irish courts, which both held the parliamentary suspension lawful.
The ruling by the Court of Session in Edinburgh on Thursday has added what lawyers and lawmakers say is an incendiary accusation against Johnson of deliberately having misled the Queen in applying for the prorogation, which he says wasn’t designed to stop lawmakers blocking him from leading Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31.
A former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, a pro-EU campaigner who Johnson expelled from the governing Conservative party last week along with 20 other rebel lawmakers, says lying to the Queen is a resignation matter. “If it were to be the case that the -government had misled the Queen, that would be a very serious matter indeed. Indeed, in my view, it would then be the moment for Mr. Johnson to resign, and very swiftly,” he said.
The power to suspend Parliament rests with the Queen, who traditionally acts on the advice of the prime minister and automatically accepts a prorogation request when made.
Downing Street says Johnson’s request was a run-of-the-mill one, and that it was in line with the convention of asking for a prorogation generally every British autumn ahead of the government setting out a fresh parliamentary agenda. The new program is outlined in an address by the monarch in what is known as the Queen’s Speech, which she delivers with great ‘pomp and circumstance’ to both houses of the British parliament.
On Thursday Johnson told reporters in London: “We need a Queen’s Speech, we need to get on and do all sorts of things at a national level.”
But the length and timing of the current suspension — in the run-up to Brexit — has attracted controversy and prompted outrage from opposition parties and Conservative rebels. Both of those factions want to block Johnson from taking Britain out of the EU at the end of the month unless there’s an agreed exit deal with Brussels. Johnson’s suspension is double the normal length of time for prorogations, legal experts say.
The prorogation sparked protests outside parliament and in other towns and cities. An online petition against the move has been signed by more than 1 million people.
And on Monday, opposition lawmakers tried to prevent the suspension by blocking the Speaker of the House of Commons from leaving his chair amid dramatic scenes that included Labor Party lawmakers singing the Red Flag, a nineteenth century socialist anthem, and Scottish nationalists singing Flower of Scotland and Scots Wha Hae. Some MPs held signs with “silenced” written on them.
Johnson’s critics say a no-deal Brexit would harm Britain and lead to job losses and a recession. They also accuse the prime minister of ordering the prorogation to prevent criticism and parliamentary scrutiny of his Brexit strategy and contingency planning for an exit.
The Scottish court agreed with them — dismissing the idea that the current prorogation was a constitutional formality. It agreed with 70 lawmakers, who brought the action demanding the prorogation be lifted. In its unanimous ruling, the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland’s highest appeals court, decided that Johnson was motivated by the “improper purpose of stymieing Parliament,” and that he had effectively misled the Queen in advising the monarch to suspend Parliament.
The judges, who relied on internal government communications leaked to lawmakers, added: “The Court will accordingly make an Order declaring that the prime minister's advice to HM the Queen and the prorogation which followed thereon was unlawful and is thus null and of no effect.”
The High Court in London, a lower court than the Scottish one, dismissed a similar legal challenge to the prorogation brought by pro-EU campaigners. In its dismissal, the English judges argued the suspension of Parliament was “purely political” and therefore was “not a matter for the courts.” A similar position was taken Thursday by a court in Belfast, bringing some relief for the beleaguered British prime minister.
But Johnson’s opponents have seized on the Scottish ruling, using it to lampoon him in tweets and in broadcast interviews. Labor lawmaker Rupa Huq, who sits on the Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee, said telling “untruths” to “our venerable 93-year-old monarch” “takes the biscuit.” She added: “She is a tough cookie but I am sure Her Majesty is now mulling over how she’s been tricked.”
Labor’s Jess Phillips tweeted: “Boris Johnson has lied to every other woman in his life, why he’d make an exception for the Queen seems unlikely.” And her colleague, David Lammy, said Johnson “deceived the Queen, disgraced the office of Prime Minister, and debased Britain’s international standing as a champion of democracy.”
Aside from the political knockabout, the court battles are adding a new dangerous twist to the Brexit mess that’s roiled Britain for the past three years and all along risked fraying the country’s constitutional order, worry legal experts. The government, which has lost its majority in the House of Commons thanks to defections and expulsions, has serious legal problems to add to the political difficulties with which it is already grappling.
“To the ongoing political turmoil we can now add a dose of legal uncertainty, as the decision to prorogue Parliament has been held both unlawful and lawful in the courts,” according to Michael Gordon, a constitutional law professor at the University of Liverpool. Top lawyers are uncertain how the Supreme Court will reconcile the contradictory rulings.
An even more controversial case looms ahead. The government is appealing to the courts' legislation passed by the Commons, over Johnson’s objections, requiring it to seek a three-month exit delay from the EU, shifting Britain’s scheduled departure date from October 31 to January 31.
British courts traditionally are loath to get drawn into politics, fearing the consequences for their credibility and independence. The danger was on display in the pro-Brexit reaction to the Scottish ruling, with anti-EU campaigners and even ministers accusing the judges of bias.