Home UK How Brexit Could Unleash a U.K. Constitutional Crisis: QuickTake

How Brexit Could Unleash a U.K. Constitutional Crisis: QuickTake


Could Prime Minister Boris Johnson suspend Parliament to push through Brexit against the will of lawmakers? That’s one of the most pressing questions facing businesses, citizens and investors as the new premier vows to lead the country out of the European Union in October with or without a deal.

1. How can the prime minister suspend Parliament?

In theory, easily. Bringing a session of Parliament to an end, known as proroguing, happens routinely. It’s the prerogative of the monarch, but exercised on the advice of the prime minister. What’s abnormal is for the prime minister to seek to prorogue Parliament strategically to prevent it from taking action or interfering with his plans. In Britain the idea conjures up images of the 17th-century English Civil War, when King Charles I tried to enforce his will on Parliament.

2. How does this relate to Brexit?

The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU on Oct. 31 by default if nothing is done to stop it. Parliament may vote — again — that Brexit can’t happen unless a negotiated divorce agreement is reached with the EU. To get around that, the prime minister could suspend Parliament and allow the U.K. to crash out of the bloc without a deal. Boris Johnson has said he wouldn’t want to suspend Parliament to get Brexit done, but he hasn’t ruled it out.

3. Why could this cause ‘constitutional crisis?’

Britain doesn’t have a written constitution, an arrangement that works in normal times. Governance relies instead on precedent. But with the country and Parliament deeply divided on Brexit and the government lacking a majority, the unwritten rules are being tested. Britain’s is a parliamentary democracy — the Queen asks the leader of the largest party elected to the House of Commons to form a government. If the prime minister can’t command a majority in Parliament then in theory he or she can’t govern. That’s why opponents say suspending Parliament to let the government get its way is undemocratic. Former Prime Minister John Major has said he would take the government to court if it tried to suspend Parliament.

4. Where does the Queen fit in?

It’s the Queen who actually issues the order to prorogue Parliament, at the request of her prime minister. Queen Elizabeth II stays out of politics — what she thinks of Brexit isn’t known, for example — and she would do everything she can to avoid being drawn into a fight. Civil servants are also duty-bound to keep the monarch out of any political or constitutional controversy. Getting involved in politics might be bad for the monarchy’s long-term chances of survival: It would risk stirring up republican sentiment, and raise questions about the monarch’s role.

5. Can Parliament fight back?

Members of Parliament — from both the Conservative and opposition parties — are already trying to prevent the next prime minister from being able to suspend Parliament. Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general and Conservative MP is leading the charge. Rory Stewart, a minister and former leadership candidate, has said Members of Parliament would meet anyway in a nearby building if the prime minister sent them home. Labour’s finance spokesman John McDonnell has said they would “occupy” the House of Commons. Even if a prime minister managed to suspend parliament and push through no-deal, at some point he’d have to reconvene lawmakers. And then he’d risk a vote of no-confidence from enraged MPs.

6. What else could happen?

The other glitch is that to prepare for a no-deal exit, the government would need to legislate. With Parliament suspended, it wouldn’t be able to do that. So a no-deal exit forced through without lawmakers’ consent could be an even messier proposition. And it would be all the prime minister’s fault.

To contact the reporters on this story: Emma Ross-Thomas in London at erossthomas@bloomberg.net;Robert Hutton in London at rhutton1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Andy Reinhardt

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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