Demonstrators react on the ruling of the Supreme Court during a protest outside the Supreme Court in London, Britain September 24, 2019. (Reuters)
LONDON – The UK Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Boris Johnson’s decision to shut down parliament in the run-up to Brexit was unlawful, but a defiant prime minister said he disagreed and vowed that Britain would leave the EU by October 31, come what may.
The stinging judgment by all 11 of the court’s sitting justices undermines Johnson’s already fragile grip on power and gives legislators more scope to try to stop him taking Britain out of the bloc next month, with or without a divorce deal.
Responding in New York to the judgment, which said that the suspension was null and void, Johnson said he would respect the ruling but “strongly disagreed” with it, making clear the setback would make no difference to his Brexit agenda.
The Supreme Court ruling, the most important constitutional legal ruling in decades, was a blistering rebuke of Johnson’s actions.
“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,” Supreme Court President Brenda Hale said.
The ruling said Johnson had not given any reason – “let alone a good reason” – for suspending the legislature for five weeks, an act which had had an “extreme” effect on the fundamentals of British democracy.
“The prime minister’s advice to Her Majesty was unlawful, void and of no effect,” said Hale, adding that parliament was therefore not suspended and it was up to the speakers of parliament’s two chambers to decide what to do next.
Opposition leaders called on Johnson to resign immediately for misleading Queen Elizabeth, who had officially suspended parliament on his advice.
A source in his office said the prime minister would not resign and Johnson, in his first public comments on the landmark ruling, appeared unrepentant.
“As the law currently stands, the UK leaves the EU on October 31st come what may but the exciting thing for us now is to get a good deal — and that is what we are working on,” he told reporters.
“And to be honest it is not made much easier by this kind of stuff in parliament or in the courts,” he added.
In London, the speaker of the House of Commons said the lower house of Britain’s two-chamber parliament would reconvene at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday.
Johnson, who has no majority in the chamber and suffered repeated defeats there before the suspension, argued the move was normal while a new legislative agenda, known as the Queen’s Speech, was prepared.
Critics said he had shut down parliament in order to prevent further reverses. A rebel alliance of opposition lawmakers and some from his own Conservative Party had forced through a law requiring Johnson to ask the EU to delay Brexit by three months if no deal was agreed by October 19.
Asked how he planned to overcome that obstacle, Johnson ignored the question and repeated his view that an October 31 exit was the legal default.
The source in Johnson’s office said the prime minister would return to Britain after giving a speech at the United Nations later in the day.
“This evening he will be flying back overnight to the UK and there will be a cabinet call today while the PM is in New York,” the source said.
A spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party declined to comment on whether it would put forward a motion of no confidence to seek to bring down Johnson’s government.
In financial markets, sterling initially hit a day’s high of $1.2479 after the ruling before falling back to stand at $1.2454 at 1045 GMT, up 0.2 per cent on the day and only slightly stronger than before the court decision.
More than three years after the United Kingdom voted by 52/48 per cent in a referendum to leave the European Union, the country remains deeply divided and the Brexit process has become mired in confusion, with options ranging from a turbulent no-deal exit to abandoning the entire endeavour.
In his comments in New York, Johnson sought to portray the court ruling as the latest attempt by Brexit opponents to thwart the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum.
“Let’s be in no doubt there are a lot of people who want to frustrate Brexit. There are a lot of people who want to stop this country coming out of the EU,” he said.
Johnson’s critics say that such language, pitting parliament and the independent judiciary against the voters, is divisive and dangerous for British democracy.
The Supreme Court had repeatedly made it clear that it was passing no judgment on the pros and cons of Brexit, but rather was deciding a narrow legal point on whether or not the prime minister’s advice to the queen was unlawful.
Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major, who had joined anti-Brexit campaigners and opposition lawmakers in the legal challenge against the prorogation, said Johnson should give an “unreserved apology” to parliament.
“No prime minister must ever treat the monarch or parliament in this way again,” he said in a statement.
Buckingham Palace declined to comment. (Reuters)