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What Boris Johnson's suspension of Parliament means for Brexit

Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II welcomes U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Victoria Jones/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II approved Wednesday U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's request to "prorogue," or suspend, Parliament between the second week of September and Oct. 14.

Between the lines: In a letter to lawmakers, Johnson said he had asked the queen to suspend Parliament to give his government a fresh chance to set out a "new bold and ambitious domestic agenda." While this may be grounded in some truth, the real purpose of the dramatic move is to limit the amount of time opposition members of Parliament have to block a "no-deal" Brexit, the default — and potentially disastrous — legal option on Oct. 31.

The big picture: The prime minister typically asks the queen — historically, an apolitical figure — to prorogue Parliament once a year in order to bring an end to legislative business. When Parliament returns for its new session, the queen makes a speech setting out the government's agenda.

  • Prorogations typically only last a matter of days, but this one is lengthy because it encompasses a period of time previously set aside for Parliament to recess for annual political party conferences. By choosing to prorogue instead, Johnson's government ensured that opposition members can't cancel the recess to focus on stopping Brexit.

The state of play: Johnson was elected leader of the Conservative Party on the promise that he will deliver Brexit on Oct. 31 "do or die" — with or without a deal. A majority of members of Parliament oppose a no-deal Brexit, which experts and even Johnson's own government admit could cause shortages of food, fuel, medicine and more.

  • Johnson and the EU essentially have one more chance to strike a deal during the European Council session on Oct. 17–18, though it's highly unlikely that will happen. If, by some miracle, the two sides do come to an agreement, Parliament will have between Oct. 21–31 to approve the deal.

What they're saying: Activists and politicians who oppose leaving without a deal are outraged that Johnson has taken the extreme step of undercutting Parliament's power at such a critical moment.

  • Commons Speaker John Bercow, who had previously said he would fight an attempt to circumvent Parliament with "every bone in my body," condemned the move as a "constitutional outrage."
  • Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn said his Labour Party would join other members of Parliament in doing "everything we can" to "stop Boris Johnson's smash-and-grab against our democracy."
  • More than 1 million people have signed a petition demanding that Parliament not be suspended unless the Brexit deadline is extended.

What's next? Parliament will return from recess to sit for a short session next week, during which lawmakers are expected to take steps to block a no-deal Brexit in the limited time they have.

  • Option 1 is a legislative fix forcing the government to seek another extension from the EU, but there are no binding Brexit bills currently on the agenda.
  • Option 2 is a vote of no-confidence, which would give MPs a window of 14 days to form a caretaker unity government with the express purpose of blocking no-deal.
  • Option 3 is a general election, assuming anti-no-deal lawmakers can't gather enough support to form a government. But Downing Street officials have already said that Johnson would likely hold any snap election after Brexit has been completed on Oct. 31.

The bottom line, via BuzzFeed News: "One senior Brexiteer equated Downing Street’s strategy to a [soccer] team wasting time at the end of a match. 'We are into the final ten minutes and we are holding the ball by the corner flag.'"

Go deeper: The scramble to build barriers to Boris