13 September 2019
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Britain’s political crisis deepened this week as Boris Johnson suffered defeat in his first six House of Commons votes, the first time that this has ever happened to a prime minister, and parliament was shut down for five weeks. Then the Scottish courts found that the shutdown was unlawful, going as far as to say that the prime minister had misled the Queen for the reasons behind the shutdown. This is the first time in history that a British prime minister has been found by a court of law to have misled the sovereign. The matter is being appealed to the Supreme Court in London, and the prime minister denies the charge.
There had been uproar in the chamber as parliament was closed down on Monday night. Labour MPs temporarily refused to let the Speaker of the House leave his seat to attend the closing ceremony in the House of Lords. They also chanted “Shame on you,” at Conservative MPs and held up signs saying that they were “Silenced.” As he left, Mr Bercow stated that “This was not a normal prorogation,” and was “an act of executive fiat.”
While the House is closed the government is not subject to any oversight, which MPs find to be most troubling given the upcoming Brexit date and the fact that the government is now in the minority.
As parliament was shut down, Mr Johnson had been sitting as prime minister for just six days. His first defeat occurred when the House of Commons voted to allow the debate of the Benn-Burt bill, in which it was proposed that there would be no No-Deal Brexit without the permission of parliament. As the proposed law was not a government bill, the House needed to have a vote to decide whether the bill would be given time.
The government opposed the idea, saying that it would take control away from the government. So serious was the threat to the government’s authority, Mr Johnson threatened to remove the Conservative whip (which is effectively membership of the parliamentary Conservative party) from any Conservative MP who voted against the government.
The government lost the vote. As a result of the rebellion, 21 Conservatives lost the party whip, taking the government’s majority from -1 (as Phillip Lee had, earlier in the day, defected to the Liberal Democrats), to -43. Mr Johnson’s brother, Jo Johnson MP, also resigned, decreasing the government’s numbers further.
The aim of the Benn-Burt bill was to avoid the UK leaving the European Union without a deal by forcing the prime minister to seek an extension to January 2020. Unsurprisingly, given the numbers of MPs who voted to be allowed to debate the bill, it passed – this time by an even bigger margin. It was given royal ascent to make it law on Monday, just before parliament was closed, so Mr Johnson is now under an obligation to send a prepared letter to the EU on 19 October to request an extension until January 2020, if no deal has been agreed.
Mr Johnson’s next move was to seek to force an early general election. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act he required a two-thirds majority of MPs to agree to an October election, but given that an election would require the closing down of parliament at a time that could still see the UK leave the European Union without a deal, permission was refused.
Mr Johnson’s next defeats came when the House of Commons passed a motion requiring the government to reveal messages and other written documentation to do with the government’s decision to close down parliament, and when it again refused the government’s request for an early election. Should the government not disclose the documents requested, it would almost certainly be found in contempt of parliament. This has only happened once before, to this government, when under the leadership of Theresa May.
There appears to be further trouble ahead, as Mr Johnson has stated that he will refuse to send the request for an extension to the Brexit date to the EU. If he does not comply with the law, then he could be removed from office, or even imprisoned.
Should you require any assistance with Brexit, an audit, or indeed any commercial area, please contact our 3HR Commercial Law team which can advise accordingly.
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