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UK’s Supreme Court says Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament was unlawful

Parliament is expected to return to work on Wednesday, as Johnson deals with the still-uncertain political fallout.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the United Nations on September 23, 2019.
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Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court has ruled that Boris Johnson’s five-week suspension of Parliament was unlawful, further roiling British politics a month ahead of the Brexit deadline.

In a unanimous decision by 11 justices, the UK’s highest court effectively ruled that Johnson acted illegally when he asked the Queen to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, from early September to October 14.

Johnson had argued that he needed to end one parliamentary session to get his agenda in order for the next, but the extraordinarily long break — five full weeks — angered critics and opposition members of Parliament, who saw Johnson as trying to sideline Parliament so he could push through his vision of Brexit at all costs.

The Court agreed, saying that prorogation itself isn’t illegal, but that Johnson’s maneuver was.

“The Court is bound to conclude, therefore, that 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,” the justices wrote.

The UK’s Supreme Court made a ruling after court challenges to Johnson’s prorogation had been filed in separate UK legal jurisdictions: England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. The English and Northern Irish courts dismissed the court cases, but the highest court in Scotland ruled that Johnson’s suspension was illegal. The discrepancies among the three forced the UK’s highest court to weigh in, which it did last week in three days of televised hearings.

The UK doesn’t have a formal constitution, but the court’s decision to intercede on a political matter like prorogation is a big deal, and it has the potential to reshape the relationship between Parliament, the executive, and the courts moving forward.

Then there are the political implications, which are only starting to reveal themselves. This deals another brutal blow to Johnson, who’s had a rough go of it in his two-month premiership. And while many members of Parliament are likely celebrating, the UK’s Supreme Court was pretty clear on what this decision doesn’t do: solve Brexit by the impending deadline of October 31.

“It is important to emphasize that these cases are not about when or on what terms the United Kingdom is to leave the European Union,” the court wrote.

What does this court decision mean for Brexit?

The UK Supreme Court said that since Johnson’s decision was unlawful, it was “thus void and of no effect.” That basically means Parliament isn’t suspended right now. The justices said “it is for Parliament, and in particular the Speaker and the Lord Speaker to decide what to do next.”

“Unless there is some Parliamentary rule of which we are unaware,” the justices added, “they can take immediate steps to enable each House to meet as soon as possible.”

That means John Bercow, the current speaker of the House of Commons, can act pretty quickly. And he already has, saying that Parliament will meet Wednesday, at 11:30 am. Bercow said Parliament would not host Prime Minister’s Questions (where Johnson answers questions from MPs) because of the short notice. And Johnson also just happens to be in New York City.

And even though Johnson is at the United Nations, it’s going to be hard to ignore the chorus of opposition MPs calling for his immediate resignation.

The UK’s highest court ruled that the prime minister misled the monarch, and tried to circumvent and undercut lawmakers. This is stunning, and would normally take down any prime minister. But as the Times columnist Alex Massie pointed out, “In ordinary circumstances I suspect a prime minister would be expected to resign in the light of a ruling such as this. But then, as the court has made clear, these are not ordinary circumstances.”

Johnson told Sky News Tuesday that he “strongly disagrees” with the Court, but he will respect the verdict. He’s expected to leave the United Nations General Assembly a bit early to return to 10 Downing Street to deal with the fallout.

Either way, it’s clear that Johnson’s power grab backfired, and badly.

Johnson has staked his premiership on the promise that he will deliver Brexit, “do or die.” That means taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union with or without a deal on October 31.

The only deal on offer is still the one that former Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the EU last year. Johnson and the EU remain at odds on the question of the Irish border, and the relationship between the EU and the UK has appeared even more publicly tense and frayed in recent weeks.

Parliament has repeatedly rejected May’s deal, but it also opposes leaving without an agreement on October 31. Johnson has insisted that a disruptive, “no-deal” Brexit remain on the table as a threat to get the EU to budge on a new deal. But Parliament doesn’t want to flirt with that prospect, and so has repeatedly tried to block a no-deal exit. Johnson’s suspension was an attempt to basically take Parliament out of the equation, so he could do what he wanted.

But Johnson’s move — to try to frustrate Parliament — has proved to be an extraordinarily flawed one. It focused Parliament, and united an opposition that might not have otherwise existed. He lost his majority in Parliament. Lawmakers still went ahead and passed a law trying to force Johnson to ask for a Brexit extension. And Johnson’s attempts to get rid of the current Parliament by calling for new elections have also failed, as MPs won’t go along with that plan right now.

Now Parliament may have even more opportunities to exert its influence in the coming days. But more time doesn’t necessarily mean much when it comes to the politics of Brexit — and how the UK should leave the EU is as unresolved as ever.

Listen to Today, Explained

How do you remove an egg from an omelette? Some say that’s how hard it is to remove the UK from the EU. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy ended up in the United Kingdom’s highest court.

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