British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced defections from senior allies Thursday as a backlash built and opponents planned legal challenges to his decision to suspend Parliament to push his Brexit plans.
The resignation of Ruth Davidson, who had been touted as a future prime minister, along with another senior Conservative in the House of Lords, was a sign of rising worry within Johnson’s ranks that the move to suspend Parliament was sidelining Britain’s elected representatives during one of the biggest political crises in generations.
Elsewhere in Europe, policymakers were jolted by the move to suspend Parliament for five weeks, which some of them said brought Britain closer to a sudden, cliff-edge Brexit that analysts say could spark food and medicine shortages. Some diplomats said they were increasingly convinced Johnson is a brutally ruthless tactician who would stop at little in a risky gambit to force both Europe and his own rebellious lawmakers into a compromise.
The resignations came after protesters jammed streets in cities around the country, including in London, Edinburgh and Manchester. Outside of Parliament, demonstrators chanted “stop the coup!” A petition calling for the government to stop the suspension quickly surged past 1 million signatures. Johnson’s adversaries promised to appeal his move in the courts. Brexit opponents were strategizing about how to use their dwindling time in Parliament to halt the relentless move toward an uncontrolled break from Europe.
Johnson sparked a torrent of criticism with his decision to ask Queen Elizabeth II to suspend Parliament for five weeks, dramatically shortening the time lawmakers have to try to block a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson has said Britain will leave the European Union by Oct. 31 with or without a deal. The majority of lawmakers in the House of Commons are opposed to leaving the bloc without a transition deal to smooth the way.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that when Parliament reconvenes after summer break Tuesday, he would move immediately to pass legislation to keep the chamber open and to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
“We will be back in Parliament on Tuesday to challenge Boris Johnson on what I think is a smash-and-grab raid against our democracy,” he told Sky News. “What we’re going to do is try to politically stop him on Tuesday with a parliamentary process in order to legislate to prevent a no-deal Brexit and also to try and prevent him shutting down parliament during this utterly crucial period.”
Opposition lawmakers will have to move fast if they are to have a chance at success. Once Parliament is suspended, no later than Sept. 12, any legislation in the pipeline is typically killed off, and lawmakers would have to start again from scratch when Parliament resumes Oct. 14.
In Davidson’s careful resignation letter, the charismatic leader avoided linking her move directly to Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament, instead focusing on family issues. But she also mentioned the “conflict I have felt over Brexit,” and the British media quickly linked the departure to Johnson’s strategy, given the timing.
Davidson’s departure after eight years leading the Scottish wing of the party is a major blow for the Conservatives, whose fortunes she helped to turn around in an area of Britain where the Conservative Party was for decades a toxic brand.
Davidson’s resignation came shortly after that of George Young, a former cabinet minister who left his post as a government whip in the House of Lords.
The move “risks undermining the fundamental role of parliament at a critical time in our history, and reinforces the view that the Government may not have the confidence of the House for its Brexit policy, Young wrote.
On Thursday, David Lidington, the effective deputy prime minister in the previous administration of Theresa May — who remains a nominal ally of Johnson — said the suspension was “not a good way to do democracy” and “sets a very bad precedent for future governments.” He told the BBC that if the opposition Labour Party had done something similar, “some of my Tory colleagues who are cheering at the moment would be turning purple with rage.”
Johnson’s government insists they are not doing anything unusual and that it is normal for a new prime minister to suspend Parliament ahead of the queen’s speech presenting the country’s legislative agenda.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, dismissed what he called the “candyfloss of outrage” over the temporary shuttering of the legislature, using the British term for cotton candy. “I don’t think there is any attempt to railroad,” he told the BBC on Thursday, insisting Johnson simply wanted to get on with his domestic agenda.
But one top Johnson lieutenant, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, was caught on camera acknowledging that Johnson was struggling to push through Brexit without a majority.
Britain is a “winner takes all system,” Wallace explained to French Defense Minister Florence Parly, in a candid discussion caught on camera ahead of an unrelated meeting in Helsinki and broadcast by the BBC. “And we’ve suddenly found ourselves with no majority and a coalition, and that’s not easy for our system.”
Wallace at one point in the exchange said, “I don’t know what the outcome of it will …” before doubling over in what appeared to be nervous laughter.
Opponents seized on the video as evidence that Johnson had seized on the tactic for crassly political gain — and that he had even misled the queen to do so.
A government spokesman said later that Wallace “misspoke.”
The British Parliament voted down the deal three times, mostly because of the so-called “backstop,” an insurance plan that would guarantee an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to prevent a return to violence there. Under the plan, the United Kingdom risks getting stuck inside the European Customs Union, limiting its ability to conduct independent trade deals.
On Aug. 29, the British government remained defiant after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament before Brexit sparked protests and outrage. (Reuters)
In the rest of the European Union, some onlookers questioned whether the challenges to democracy and the rule of law that have enveloped countries such as Hungary and Poland have spread to Britain’s far more ancient political system.
“Boris Johnson is often compared to Donald Trump. He also isn’t far off from Machiavelli,” read one editorial in Le Figaro, a French newspaper.
European leaders were mostly quiet about the British drama, wary of being sucked into a domestic political dispute and already skeptical about the chances that Britain would manage to agree to a transition deal before it departed.
David Frost, Johnson’s new Brexit negotiator, was in Brussels on Wednesday to meet with senior E.U. officials, but he brought no new ideas about how to change those aspects of the transition deal that are most unpalatable in Britain, according to diplomats briefed on the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about the sensitive conversations.
E.U. Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier indicated Thursday that nothing had changed in E.U. calculations.
“The EU will continue to protect the interests of its citizens and companies, as well as the conditions for peace and stability on the island of Ireland. It is our duty & our responsibility,” he wrote on Twitter.
A demonstrator, wearing a mask depicting Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and holding a mock gravestone inscribed with the words “RIP British Democracy,” protests outside the gates to Downing Street in central London on Aug. 28. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)
Others are hoping to use the courts to stop Johnson from suspending Parliament. A cross-party group of more than 70 lawmakers began a legal challenge Thursday in Scotland’s highest civil court. Gina Miller, the business executive who in 2017 won a high-profile legal challenge over how the British government could start the Brexit process, has filed an application at the High Court in London seeking an urgent review of Johnson’s decision. Miller has written that while prorogation “is an acceptable UK constitutional practice, no prime minister in modern history has attempted to use it in such a brazen manner.” She said that the effect is to “curtail or deny Parliament its constitutional right to scrutinize or pass legislation to limit the damage of a no deal Brexit.”