Opposition politicians raged Tuesday at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s five-week suspension of Parliament before the deadline for Brexit, which drew angry and unprecedented protests in the House of Commons.
Parliament has been prorogued – or suspended – at the government’s request until Oct. 14, a drastic move that gives Johnson a respite from rebellious lawmakers as he plots his next move as he tries to lead Britain out of the European Union by Oct. 31.
Opposition lawmakers chanted “Shame on you” and held up signs reading “Silenced” as Parliament was formally shut down in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
As legislators implored House of Commons Speaker John Bercow not to comply, he expressed his displeasure, saying “this is not a standard or normal prorogation.”
“It’s one of the longest for decades and it represents … an act of executive fiat,” Bercow said.
The suspension came after lawmakers inflicted a series of defeats on Johnson’s Brexit plans.
Johnson says the country must leave the EU at the end of October, with or without a divorce agreement to smooth the way. But many lawmakers fear a no-deal Brexit would be economically devastating, and are determined to stop him.
Opposition legislators, backed by rebels in Johnson’s Conservative Party, passed a law that compels the government to ask the EU for a three-month delay if no deal has been agreed by Oct. 19.
“I will not ask for another delay,” Johnson said.
But he has few easy ways out of it. His options – all of them extreme – include disobeying the law, which could land him in court or even prison, and resigning so that someone else would have to ask for a delay.
Legislators also demanded the government release, by Wednesday, e-mails and text messages among aides and officials relating to suspending Parliament and planning for Brexit amid allegations that the suspension is being used to circumvent democracy.
Under parliamentary rules, the government is obliged to release the documents. In a statement, the government said it would “consider the implications of this vote and respond in due course.”
Then, early Tuesday, lawmakers rebuffed, for a second time, Johnson’s request for an early election, which he said was “the only way to break the deadlock in the House.”
Opposition parties voted against the measure or abstained, denying Johnson the two-thirds majority he needed. They want to make sure a no-deal departure is blocked before agreeing to an election, making a vote before November unlikely.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Johnson of seeking to crash out of the EU and seek a “one-sided” trade deal with the United States that would damage Britain.
“A no-deal Brexit is really a Trump-deal Brexit,” Corbyn told a union conference, “No-one can trust the word of a prime minister who is threatening to break the law to force through no-deal. So a general election is coming. But we won’t allow Johnson to dictate the terms.”
Johnson has acknowledged that a no-deal Brexit “would be a failure of statecraft” for which he would be partially to blame. He said he believed a deal could be struck by Oct. 18, when leaders of all 28 EU countries hold a summit in Brussels.
Ursula von der Leyen, who will replace the current president of the EU’s executive branch, Jean-Claude Juncker, in November, said a no-deal Brexit “will be way more difficult than an orderly Brexit.”
Von der Leyen said Tuesday that the EU is ready for a no-deal Brexit that would see tariffs and other impediments imposed on trade between the bloc and Britain. But she insisted “it’s not in our common interest.”
The EU says Britain has not produced any concrete proposals for replacing the contentious “backstop,” a provision in the withdrawal agreement reached by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May that is designed to ensure an open border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland.
An open border is crucial to the regional economy and underpins the peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
Opposition to the backstop was a key reason Britain’s Parliament rejected May’s Brexit deal with the EU three times earlier this year. British Brexit supporters oppose the backstop because it locks Britain into EU trade rules to avoid customs checks, something they say will stop the U.K. from striking new trade deals with countries such as the United States.
Johnson was meeting Tuesday with Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up his Conservative minority government. The DUP is staunchly opposed to the backstop, which it says undermines the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
Despite the acrimony engulfing British politics, some lawmakers are calling for compromise. On Tuesday, a cross-party group of parliamentarians branding themselves MPs for a Deal urged colleagues to look again at the rejected withdrawal agreement.
“There is a silent majority of people in this country who want to move on from this nightmare – who recognize that what’s going on is massively damaging to our country, to our international reputation, to our economy,” Liberal Democrat lawmaker Norman Lamb said.
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