LONDON — Boris Johnson’s five-week suspension of parliament was ruled unlawful Tuesday and MPs will now hurry back to Westminster to take their seats in the House of Commons.
Just hours after Britain’s top judges gave the prime minister a serious telling-off, Speaker John Bercow was back, declaring business would resume the following day.
But, as is so often the case with Brexit, the politics is ablaze yet the steps toward an EU exit remain largely unchanged.
Here’s your guide to what Tuesday’s ruling means and what happens next.
What has the Supreme Court decided?
Eleven judges decided unanimously that Johnson acted illegally when he advised Queen Elizabeth II to suspend (or prorogue) parliament. In essentially misleading the queen, the prime minister had by extension trampled on the sovereignty of parliament at a crucial time in the Brexit process.
“The decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue parliament was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification,” said Brenda Hale, the court’s president, as she read out the judgement.
Johnson’s advice was “unlawful, void and of no effect,” she said, meaning that “when the Royal Commissioners walked into the House of Lords [to enact the suspension] it was as if they walked in with a blank sheet of paper.”
In the eyes of the law, this suspension never happened, meaning the speakers of the Commons and Lords are now free to recall both houses of parliament, Hale said.
However, the judges chose not to rule on Johnson’s motivation for suspending parliament, something that could have been even more politically contentious.
What impact will the decision have on Brexit?
As things stand, the U.K. is still due to leave the European Union on October 31, and Johnson reiterated again on Tuesday that he wants to “get on and deliver [Brexit]” regardless of the Supreme Court ruling.
But he still must contend with a new law — known as the Benn Act — which forces the prime minister to ask the European leaders to extend negotiations if no deal has been agreed by next month’s European Council meeting on October 17 and 18.
With the threat of suspension looming, MPs acted quickly in early September and passed this law in order to stop Johnson taking the U.K. out of the EU without a deal.
“[The court ruling] doesn’t make a big impact on the outcome of Brexit in the long run,” Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think tank, said. “What matters most is whether Boris can get a deal with the EU27.”
Does the ruling make a no-deal Brexit less likely?
Probably. Having lost in the country’s highest court, the Cabinet are likely to be more cautious about allowing the prime minister to try any more unusual maneuvers to force Brexit through.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which propped up Johnson’s government in Westminster, could also apply pressure not to further test the law. Arlene Foster, the party’s leader, tweeted on Tuesday that the Supreme Court had “to be respected.”
Grant said he thought the chance of the U.K. leaving on October 31 had gone from “low to minimal; infinitesimally low.”
“The more radical, Maoist voices in the government were saying let’s find a loophole. Having been chided by the Supreme Court once for acting illegally, it would be very difficult for them to do that twice,” he said.
Assuming Johnson doesn’t do a deal with Brussels, the most likely next step for the government is to ask the EU27 for an extension and then push for an election.
Does this mean Johnson will have to resign?
Johnson on Tuesday rejected the idea that he could resign over the defeat, and was backed up by Trump. Asked if the British prime minister might step down, Trump said: “I’ll tell you, I know him well, he’s not going anywhere.” Johnson added: “No, no, no.”
British prime ministers do not usually resign unless they lose the confidence of the public (via an election or referendum), of their Cabinet, or of parliament. Johnson doesn’t appear to have lost the first two and arguably never enjoyed the confidence of parliament, having lost every vote in the House of Commons. Whereas once losing a key vote would have spelled the end of a premiership, new rules mandating when U.K. elections must be held have made it possible for prime ministers to cling on.
A snap YouGov poll in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling suggests the public largely agrees with the judgment that prorogation was unlawful. But Johnson has been riding high in the usual polling horserace in recent weeks and the public — or at least the section he claims to speak for — generally seems to support his approach to Brexit.
He held a “businesslike” Cabinet call in the wake of the judgment, a Downing Street official said, and although Justice Secretary Robert Buckland raised concerns about a hostile briefing against the judges, nobody seems on the verge of resignation.
Johnson himself feels no need to resign because he refutes the verdict, a U.K. government official said. “The prime minister has said he disagrees with the ruling but of course, as always, we abide by it, he now has a job to do.”
Will anyone take the blame?
Downing Street does not expect ministers or advisers to lose their jobs over the prorogation blunder.
There had been some speculation that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox could be in line for the chop after Sky News obtained a memo detailing his legal advice that prorogation was lawful. “The attorney general said that his advice on the question of the law is that this was lawful and within the constitution,” the document reads. “Any accusations of unlawfulness or constitutional outrage were motivated by political considerations.”
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, meanwhile, said top Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings “must go” for recommending what he branded the “worst political decision ever.” Other reporters said there was disquiet about Cummings among Tory ranks in the wake of the verdict, while questions were also raised over the position of legislative adviser Nikki da Costa.
A U.K. government official said the prime minister had confidence in Cox and Cummings. He was not asked specifically about da Costa but rejected suggestions there would be job losses.
What do MPs do now?
While the ruling is a blow to the prime minister, it also puts pressure on MPs to demonstrate that parliament has a valuable role scrutinizing Brexit. Why make a big fuss about suspending parliament if MPs don’t have anything meaningful to say?
The ruling caught most of British politics by surprise and there is no clear cross-party strategy yet, according to a number of figures involved in discussions. “The outcome of the ruling had not been expected by many in Westminster,” one opposition strategist said.
The coalition of cross-party MPs that pushed the Benn Act only came together when facing a looming deadline because Johnson was about to suspend parliament, which focused the disparate group on their shared aim of preventing a no-deal Brexit.
Some Tories opposed to no deal are mulling further legislation to ensure the prime minister can’t circumnavigate the new law, strategists working with some of them said.
While some think a move could come as early as tomorrow, others do not think MPs will act immediately.
Another strategist familiar with discussions said MPs from across the political divide would use the extra parliamentary time to probe the government for more information on Brexit preparations, for example more detail about planning for a no-deal exit, insight into the government’s legal advice or details of negotiations with Brussels.
The ancient parliamentary device of a “humble address” to require the government to publish such information would likely be used in the coming weeks, the strategist said, although some are more cautious about forcing legal advice because of the precedent it sets.
Will there be a general election?
It is still just about possible to have a pre-Brexit election if two thirds of MPs vote for one when parliament returns Wednesday, according to the Institute for Government’s Joe Marshall. But it is very unlikely.
For opposition leaders, the calculation on an election hasn’t changed. They still want to be sure Johnson cannot pull the U.K. out of the EU without a deal before they will back a snap vote, which makes an election very unlikely before November. Opposition parties held discussions about their next steps on Tuesday following the Supreme Court ruling.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told his party on Tuesday that the only way out of the Brexit crisis was a general election, but that no-deal exit must be ruled out first. A spokesman said Corbyn would go to parliament on Wednesday and “use whatever mechanisms there are to try and hold the prime minister to account and achieve the goals Jeremy set out.”
Scottish National Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon said MPs should “come together” to force Johnson out of office through a vote of confidence if he does not do the “decent and honorable thing” by quitting. But an SNP official said the party would make sure no deal had been ruled out “for good — no games or smoke and mirrors,” and then move against the prime minister.
Can the U.K.’s unwritten constitution survive Brexit?
“The wider effect of the [Supreme Court] judgment will be that few, if any, politically controversial decisions taken by minsters will be out of bounds for the courts,” said Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer and expert on constitutional law.
He said Tuesday’s ruling made a written constitution “more likely” in the long term.
“Many will be uneasy with the courts taking an increasingly muscular role over hybrid political and legal issues which just a decade ago they may have refused to get involved,” he said.
“Ultimately, the court says it is revealing constitutional principles but some will argue the justices are creating them. A written constitution could resolve that tension, though experience from other jurisdictions suggest it would not solve it,” he added.
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