The UK Supreme Court, An Unlawful Action, and Parliament’s Return
September 24, 2019
The UK Supreme Court has just ruled—unanimously—that it was unlawful for British prime minister Boris Johnson to prorogue (i.e., suspend) parliament. But this statement barely conveys the significance of the verdict announced this morning by the United Kingdom’s highest legal authority. This was a profound decision, and it may take a number of years to fully understand its impact on the United Kingdom. Already, though, it is clear that the announcement will have several consequences—some immediate, some longer term.
Through its verdict, the Court has ruled that Johnson was not entitled to prorogue parliament for five weeks without a reasonable justification, and his government provided no such justification. This ruling establishes the boundaries of the power to suspend parliament—a royal authority which is traditionally administered by the government. From now on, Parliament can only be prorogued for a reasonable justification, and for a reasonable period of time. This decision de facto thwarts the government’s tentative plans to simply prorogue Parliament again. It is likely the power to prorogue parliament will soon cease to be a royal power at all, instead becoming one that can only be administered through a vote in the House of Commons.
This verdict also contains a clear judgement—again, given by a very esteemed body—that the prime minister was untruthful with both Her Majesty the Queen, and also the country. Boris Johnson has been found to have given false reasons for shutting down parliament. Interestingly, Johnson did not offer a witness statement that would restate his public comments in front of the court that he was closing parliament to prepare for the next legislative session. The reason is now clear: a false witness statement would have exposed him to perjury.
Like many times this year in Brexit-land, we have entered a unique and historic situation: no prime minister has been determined to have lied to the monarch before. Past practice has been that ministers found to have lied to Parliament are expected to resign (there have been just a small number of exceptions); lying to the Queen should be considered a more grievous act. Calls for Boris Johnson’s resignation (he would be the shortest-serving prime minister ever) have historical weight.
This verdict also has implications for the integrity of United Kingdom itself. It is an endorsement of the Scottish Supreme Court’s decision from earlier this month and overrules the opposing judgement of the English court. In doing so, it helps to strengthen the union of nations that is the United Kingdom. The judgement confirmed that the two systems of law in the United Kingdom, Scottish and English, have equal weight.
Through the unanimous clarity of the Court’s wording and the force of the judges’ words, the UK Supreme Court has made it almost impossible for the prime minister to find a way around their verdict. There appear to be no sub-clauses or escape options which might offer solace to a government whose decision has been voided.
What happens now? Parliament will return as if it was never suspended. It will be able to conduct oversight of the government’s negotiating approach with the European Union; hold the government accountable on its most recent spending plans; and review the government’s most recent foreign policy stance vis-à-vis Iran.
These are extraordinary times in British politics. The fabric of institutions which underpin the United Kingdom’s system of government and its unwritten constitution have been tested by Brexit in so many ways. Today’s decision by the Supreme Court—itself a relatively new invention, having been created only in 2009 after the devolution of some powers to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales—shows, in fact, that some checks and balances are working but are coming under enormous stress.