Suspending the British Parliament and the Brexit Debate
August 28, 2019
On August 28, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth II requesting that she approve the suspension of the UK Parliament (also called proroguing) for five weeks beginning in the second week of September. While Parliament has been prorogued before, this is usually a formality that lasts just a few days so one legislative session can conclude, and the next one can begin. This instance is different however, both because of its length—it would be the longest period during which Parliament has been suspended since 1945—and because the move has a different purpose: it is to stop Parliament legislating on Brexit during a critical phase. The House of Commons is currently out of session and will return on September 3.
Q1: What is Prime Minister Boris Johnson trying to accomplish?
A1: This extreme political move is an attempt to prevent Parliament from stopping the United Kingdom from leaving the European Union without an agreement on October 31. This move comes immediately after UK opposition leaders met yesterday to approve a legislative strategy to prevent a no-deal Brexit. The prime minister does not want Parliament to force the government to request an extension from the European Union beyond the October 31 deadline. This decision—though being described by the government as an effort to push forward a new prime minister’s legislative agenda—may force opposition parties and parliamentarians to attempt to bring down the current government through a vote of no confidence rather than to implement their legislative blocking strategy.
Q2: Has the queen agreed to prorogue parliament?
A2: Yes, the queen always follows the government’s recommendation. But this action has now brought the monarchy into the Brexit debate. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition and Labour Party, and Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, have both written to the queen urging her not to agree to the prime minister’s suspension request. It has been announced that Parliament will be suspended no earlier than September 9 until no later than October 14.
Q3: What happens next?
A3: Boris Johnson took an extraordinary step that sidelines Parliament at a defining moment in the UK’s history and brings the country into a full constitutional crisis without the benefit of a written constitution. In other words, the United Kingdom is in unchartered waters.
The speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, as well as senior members of both the ruling Conservative and opposition parties, have denounced this as a “constitutional outrage” and “profoundly undemocratic.” Large nationwide demonstrations are being planned. There are a variety of legal efforts underway to stop the possibility of proroguing Parliament such as through the Scottish courts and a petition.
It is likely that as soon as Parliament is reseated on September 3, Jeremy Corbyn and other opposition leaders will call a vote of no confidence in the Johnson government.
Q4: Could there be an early general election?
A4: In 2011, the House of Commons passed legislation called the Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA), which set the term of a Parliament: it is to be held on a Thursday at the beginning of May in the fifth year of the Parliament (in this case, May 2022 since the last general election was held in 2017). But that law also laid out specific options to bypass the regular date of an election. There are two ways to trigger a snap election prior to the regularly scheduled date: (1) two-thirds majority of members of parliament (MPs) agree to a new general election; or (2) there is a vote of no confidence in a government, as noted above.
If a vote of no-confidence is successful, there will a 14-day period during which Parliament can choose a new government or reelect the old one, if either can command the support of a majority of members of parliament. If after 14 days no majority exists, a general election will be called. There must be a minimum period of 25 days between the dissolution of Parliament and the election; counting the 14-day window after the vote of no confidence, this campaigning time would bring the snap election date very close to the Brexit deadline—or just after. Thus, there is the potential for an election to be held both before October 31 or after.
Q5: Who would win a general election if one is called?
A5: Boris Johnson is an enthusiastic campaigner and his government is already in pre-election gear. His Conservative Party is putting out numerous and generous funding announcements for health care, schools, and more law enforcement. His ascent to the prime minister’s office has given the Conservative Party a boost in the polls, where they now sit at around 30 percent, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats are both close to 20 percent. The Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, is in fourth place at around 15 percent, roughly half of its vote share in the European elections just three months ago. Boris Johnson is gambling that his hard stance on Brexit will continue to attract more of Farage’s supporters to the Conservative Party. Of course, it is important to note that when former prime minister Theresa May decided to call an early election in 2017, the Conservative Party was 18 points ahead in the polls, but the Conservatives ended up losing their majority in Parliament. An election under such extreme political—and potentially economic—circumstances will be very hard to predict.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Donatienne Ruy is a research associate with the CSIS Europe Program.
To learn more, see The CSIS Travel Guide to Brexit.
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