Johnson’s Opposition Has Few Options To Stop Suspension Of Parliament And Brexit

Parliament returns for a short period tomorrow, but there's little time for those who hope to stop Boris Johnson's plans to force a hard Brexit.

When the House of Commons reconvenes on Tuesday, the forces aiming to stop Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s efforts to suspend Parliament and forcing the United Kingdom into a hard Brexit will be taking one last long shot:

Christopher Gloyne, a retired accountant, has voted exclusively for the Conservative Party for 60 years. But he just tore up his party membership card because he’s furious at Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“He is deliberately bypassing 400 years of parliamentary democracy by what he’s doing,” said Gloyne, 78, who stood, wrapped in a blue European Union flag, in a large protest Saturday near the prime minister’s office at 10 Downing Street.

Johnson, who took over as prime minister in July, drove a spike into a raw nerve in Britain when he announced last week that he intends to suspend Parliament for five weeks, sharply limiting members’ opportunity to debate the terms of Britain’s Oct. 31 Brexit divorce from the European Union.

That maneuver set up a potentially ferocious showdown on Tuesday, when Parliament returns from its summer recess. Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson’s chief rival as leader of the opposition Labour Party, has vowed to fight Johnson in the House of Commons, calling his action a “smash and grab” on democracy.

Brexit has already deeply divided and wounded Britain, but Johnson’s move has provoked a new level of anger, creating one of the most emotional moments in recent British history.

From Scotland to Northern Ireland to England, Britons are accusing each other of assaulting the world’s most storied and emulated democracy, hurling their rage in the starkest of terms.

Johnson has defended the suspension, scheduled to start next week, as legal and benign, a chance for his new government to make a fresh start after taking office just five weeks ago. He said lawmakers would still have plenty of time to debate Brexit.

Suspending Parliament at this time of year is fairly typical. But doing it for so long — and with such a hugely significant political decision looming — is highly unusual. It’s also a major political gamble for Johnson, who has staked his job on a promise of Brexit by Halloween, “do or die.”

Corbyn and others have accused Johnson of trampling democratic norms in an attempt to ram though Brexit, which British voters approved by a narrow margin in a 2016 referendum.

They say Johnson is so determined to deliver Brexit — which his predecessor, Theresa May, was unable to do — that he’s willing to cause lasting damage to a democratic system that has long been a beacon around the world.

“We are mourning. What’s happening is wrong,” said Elizabeth Mahmoud, her eyes filling with tears on Saturday.

At 64, the caterer was attending her first political demonstration. Her young granddaughter held a sign that read, “History is Watching.”

“People look to the British Parliament for fairness, for freedom and for everybody to get a voice,” Mahmoud said. “Please don’t take our voice away.”

The Telegraph reports that Corbyn’s most likely avenue of attack given the limited amount of time would be a vote of no confidence that could potentially trigger a new election and would at the very least mean setting up a constitutional crisis. It’s far from clear, though, that Corbyn has anywhere near the support he would need to win such a vote. In order for that to happen, he would need to get the support of at least some dissident members of the Conservative Party and/or a collapse of the agreement that former Prime Minister Theresa May reached with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which continues to support the Tory government. Absent either of those events happening, the no-confidence vote would fail and the status quo, such as it is, would continue. If it somehow succeeds then either the Brits would get a new government headed by Jeremy Corbyn or, more likely, the United Kingdom would be forced to head to a snap election just before the current Brexit deadline of October 31st.

As things stand, an election at this point would seem to end up being bad news for Johnson and the Conservative Party. I haven’t seen any polling on the issue yet, but based on reporting in the British and American media the overall reaction to Johnson’s suspension of Parliament has been overwhelmingly negative. One indication of that can be seen in the thousands of people who turned out over the weekend for what were called “Stop the coup!” protests in the wake of the suspension. Despite these protests, though, there’s a very good chance that Johnson will be able to get away with what was, in the end, a completely legal maneuver under British law and tradition, The amount of time for the opposition to act, as well as their options, are limited and all the cards appear to be in Johnson’s hands for now. Whether or not that continues after he succeeds in forcing through the hard Brexit he wants at the end of October is another matter.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Kathy says:

    I won’t suggest the British people should emulate their English predecessors, and do unto Boris as they did unto Charles I when he messed with Parliament. But King Boris I should keep Charles’ fate in mind.

    In particular, King Boris ought to remember he’s not the king.

  2. John L McCann says:

    @Kathy: I am cloudy on the exact sequence but messing with the time which Parliament was allowed to remain in session led to the ‘Long Parliament’ which refused to disband for 20 years. Of course, that was in 1620. Things might be a little different these days.

  3. @Kathy:

    To be fair, Johnson didn’t violate any laws or constitutional norms when he moved for the suspension of Parliament. He did take advantage of those rules to make it more difficult for the opposition to stop a no-deal Brexit.

  4. Kathy says:

    @John L McCann:

    So am I. I listened to Duncan’s podcast on the English Revolution over 4 years ago (where does the time go?) But the problem started, if memory serves, when Charles tried to impose taxes without convening a parliament.

    The irony is that the English, and eventually the other inhabitants of the British Isles, wound up fighting over “taxation without representation.” A lesson they failed to apply later on.

  5. drj says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    To be fair, Johnson didn’t violate any laws or constitutional norms when he moved for the suspension of Parliament.

    Nope. Totally nope.

    Johnson most definitely violated constitutional norms; and, according to someone who is perhaps the UK’s leading authority on constitutional law, he also violated clearly established legal principles.

    However, it is less clear whether a court whould have the power to grant an effective remedy.

    As things stand, an election at this point would seem to end up being bad news for Johnson and the Conservative Party.

    Maybe, but Johnson has a more than decent shot of winning.

    With a deeply divided opposition and a first-past-the-post electoral system, an election would be actually his to lose at this particular point in time.

  6. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    To be fair, Johnson didn’t violate any laws or constitutional norms when he moved for the suspension of Parliament. He did take advantage of those rules to make it more difficult for the opposition to stop a no-deal Brexit.

    Had Dante lived in our time, I’m sure he’d have reserved a deep circle of Hell for those who use the letter of the law to break the spirit of the law.

    But that’s wishful thinking. Boris, who’s still not the king, is using the letter of the law to rob the British people of their sovereignty as exercised through their representatives. He is, in effect, taking all the political power for himself, at least as regards a no deal Brexit.

    While this may be legal, it’s no less despicable. All the more so since he wasn’t even elected in his own right.

  7. @Kathy:

    The problem is that Parliament clearly doesn’t know what the hell it wants to do vis a vis Brexit. They had a fairly decent deal for a soft Brexit that May had negotiated and they rejected it. Now, with the clock ticking down, it’s unlikely that anything can be done to stop a hard Brexit and all the problems that will entail.

  8. @Doug Mataconis:

    Johnson didn’t violate any laws or constitutional norms when he moved for the suspension of Parliament.

    He is quite clearly violating norms. The length of the prorogation is clearly a violation of norm. Further, to do it under the current circumstances is clearly abnormal.

  9. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Agreed. and that might be a justification to do something terrible in order to force the deal through. But not for forcing a no deal Brexit.

    The former is like Solomon threatening to cut the baby in two, in order to see how the women claiming to be the mother react. The latter is like Solomon cutting the baby in two himself, then handing a half to each woman and telling them to be happy he found the best possible solution for their problem.

  10. JohnSF says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    deal for a soft Brexit

    You are mistaken.

    May’s deal was NOT a “soft” Brexit but a “hard” one.

    “Soft” Brexit was best originally generally taken to mean Single Market/Customs Area membership via EEA or EFTA or similar; a relationship like those of Norway or Switzerland.

    “Hard” Brexit was taken to be ruling out such relations; May opted for “hard” Brexit when her “red lines” rejected European Court of Justice jurisdiction (and EFTA Court in effect) and free movement of labour, and “our own trade deals”.

    The subsequent megotiation have largely been the the EU trying to mitigate the impact of this “hard” Brexit on Ireland, and holding open scope for a shift to “soft” in the post-exit trade talks.
    While the British government has been trying to force the EU to grant a “cherry picked” quasi-Single Market and to pretend to it’s supporters than an FTA=Single Market

    No Deal is “hard” Brexit minus any agreements and any transition period ; it’s “bloody stupid” Brexit..

    Criticising Parliament is all very well, but had May pursued a “soft” Brexit I think there is a chance it could have succeed; instead she chose a course politically calculated to bolster Tories vs UKIP and to attack the “Labour Leaver” vote.

    Many MP’s could not in conscience embrace May’s form of Brexit; an WTO or even FTA based deal would not be as immediately destructive as No Deal, but it still wrecks any companies that depend on, or sell into, continental JIT, service trade in Europe etc.

  11. JohnSF says:

    The best course for opponents of Johnson now will be to attempt to craft binding legislation forbidding a No Deal exit without Commons consent, and with a plan to trigger vote of no confidence if the government baulks.
    After VoNC, install an emergency govt. with a limited agenda; agree extension with EU, revoke Article 50 if the EU refuses extension. After that, options get even more tricky, and politically contingent.
    But wresting control away from the elements of the Conservative Party dedicated to lunacy is posiible.

  12. JohnSF says:

    Re. my last, Michael Gove has apparently semi-threatened (enough to troll opponents and rev up the base, not clearly enough that he can’t back away) to block royal assent and/or just ignore till after Brexit Day 1 November any anti-No Deal legislation.

    The government really does believe in pushing its luck..

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: True, but it we’re talking 1620, the next raising of the issue was roughly 150 years later and under a King who apparently didn’t even have an elevator, let alone one that still went all the way to the top floor.

  14. JohnSF says:

    Latest update: rebel plan is now for a vote for an extension (prob. think “binding” not workable), govt. declaring they will regard this as a vote of confidence (?legally) and withdraw whip from and deselect rebels.

  15. Michael Cain says:


    After VoNC, install an emergency govt. with a limited agenda; agree extension with EU, revoke Article 50 if the EU refuses extension.

    If the revoke Article 50 part of that is in place, what motivation would the EU have to grant an extension?

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “…what motivation would the EU have to grant an extension?”

    Being rid of Nigel Farage in the EU parliament is not enough of an inducement for you?

  17. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Cain:
    UK has always held the option to unilaterally revoke Article 50.
    (Though ECJ judgement requires it to “unequivocal and unconditional”; lawyers, eh?)

    Why grant an extension if revocation is possible?
    Why not?
    The EU is plainly reconciled to the UK leaving, and on any terms up to and including No Deal; albeit a Deal is preferable.

    If I were an EU statesman and (important caveat) were not sick to the back teeth of the whole sorry saga, I would prefer extension on the basis it might lead to a government with a sensible policy, and/or a decisive second referendum, and a settling of the issue on reasonable terms.

  18. Barry says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “The problem is that Parliament clearly doesn’t know what the hell it wants to do vis a vis Brexit.”

    I would disagree:

    1/3 of the Tories know what they want, which is No Deal, and either d*mn the consequences or leverage them for full fascism.

    2/3 of the Tories know what they want, which is A Deal, but not working with Labour.

    90% of Labour know what they want, which is to Remain, but they’re saddled with f*cked up leadership.

  19. JohnSF says:

    Slight disagreement.
    Cons. More like:
    1/4 ? No Deal
    1/4 Hard Brexit or No Deal as best alternative (includes some 1/8? who thought May Deal was “hard enough”)
    1/4 “Any deal please for the love of…”
    1/8 SM+CA deal or May type deal if need be
    1/8 SM+CA deal or Remain

    i.e. c 1/2 for May type deal.
    Question: is Johnson really aiming at a “lipstick on the pig” May Deal and pass it under pressure, or at No Deal?

    Cummings, being the strategic godlike Machiavelli eclipsing Kahnian patrician 🙂 genius he aint, is doubtless touting both as acceptable outcomes.

    Numbers probably a bit off, could calculate more exactly but frankly can’t be arsed at this point 🙂

  20. JohnSF says:

    Well worth reading, as ever, the latest thoughts on Brexit from one of the wisest and most experienced people on the matter, former UK Permanent Representative Sir Ivan Rogers.

    One thing he hints at but does not enlarge on: the potential for a post-Brexit UK under a Conservative government to effectively withdraw from NATO in a fit of pique.

    (My further question: could a subsequent post-Brexit Corbynite Labour govt. resist the temptation to fully detach the UK from the Atlantic Alliance structures?)

  21. Michael Cain says:

    One thing he hints at but does not enlarge on: the potential for a post-Brexit UK under a Conservative government to effectively withdraw from NATO in a fit of pique…. (My further question: could a subsequent post-Brexit Corbynite Labour govt. resist the temptation to fully detach the UK from the Atlantic Alliance structures?)

    What happens to the British deal for Trident missiles and their maintenance — all done in the US — if they leave NATO? Serious question, I have no idea what the answer is.

  22. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Cain:
    Corbynites: “No Trident? No problem! Unilateral disarmament now!”

    Right Brexiteers: “Out of rotten Eurocentric NATO! A wonderful future awaits with lovely, benign, geostrategically clued up Mr. Trump! Who will rule the US for ever and ever…”

    Sensible people: “Oh god, does this sh*t never end…”

    Sneaky boffin at Aldermaston:
    “Well, actually we accidentally sort of temporarily diverted and reverse engineered the whole lot from boosters to MW bus to RV to guidance to physics package back in the 1980’s.
    Hers’s the engineering requirements, costings and timelines for full conversion to UK based.
    We weren’t supposed to do that?
    They’re under copyright?

    If the French can build a fully independent system, the UK could IF it wanted to and the national finances were in order.
    Thing is, post a “hard” Brexit, national finances are going to look pig sick for years, if not decades.

  23. John L McCann says:

    @JohnSF: Gosh, Boris Johnson would go down in post-WW2 history paired with Charles DeGaulle as the two national leaders who took their nations out of NATO. I wonder if he’s thought of that distinction?

  24. JohnSF says:

    @John L McCann:
    Actually it would go way beyond DeGaulle; he only took France out of the integrated military command, but maintained the alliance commitment itself (and in fact continued to operate the FFA in Baden, and to coordinate air defence etc.)

    Whereas the logical conclusion of the wilder Leaver rhetoric about European security would be repudiation of the alliance itself.

    And what the radicals tend to forget is that the UK has no formal military alliance with the USA outside the North Atlantic Treaty.

    I doubt Johnson or the more reality based members of current Cabinet would pursue this; but a “ERGist/Faragised” Con/BP successor might.

  25. Kathy says:

    I’ve been following the doings in the UK Parliament today, but could hardly keep up. For one thing, a lot of stuff got going. For another, I don’t really understand the structure of British politics. so here’s a CNN translation of what went on today.

    Now, my understanding is that the PM must have a majority, either of their own party or through a coalition of two or more parties. Boris no longer has a majority because a) one MP defected to another party as Johnson began to address the Commons, and b) his party expelled the MPs who voted against Boris’ wishes.

    So, doesn’t that mean he can no longer be PM and must either build another coalition or call elections? Or are elections automatic? I know he’s proposing an election now, but don’t quite get what’s going on.

    My uptake, though, is that Boris will likely lose the no-deal option. prorogation be damned.

  26. Kathy says:


    Thanks. That was very helpful.

    And confusing, too. But mostly helpful.

  27. JohnSF says:

    A reply to Kathy seems to have been eaten by the spam filter thingy.
    Any chance it can be set loose to stalk the earth with it’s long winded pedantry?

  28. Kathy says:


    I managed to read it before it went poof.

  29. JohnSF says:

    The loss of a nominal majority has no legal effect, IIRC.
    In practice a government in a minority of 20 odd can’t hope to last long.
    And Johnson/Cummings are clearly thinking of going to the country.

    But the opposition are regarding this with exteme wariness. There have been leaks that govt. was thinking of calling a vote saying they would dissolve immediately for an early October election, then use prerogative power after dissolution to switch to AFTER Brexit day.

    Nobody in their right minds trusts this government.
    Better to tie them down to at least an extension till next year, and if need be install an emergency alternative government.

    As to the mechanics of it all:
    The monarch calls upon a leader presumed to have the confidence of the House to form a government; but after that said leader in effect is in place until they choose to resign or are forced out by the loss of a vote of no confidence.

    Under the system before the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 the PM could in effect call an election whenever they wanted.
    Or be forced out by a confidence vote; unusual, last loss of such Callaghan’s Labour govt. 1979.
    They could also choose to make any vote a matter “of confidence” to pressure rebels; as for their legal standing IANAL, but in practice the PM could simply treat it as such.

    Since 2011 the PM has lost the previous power to dissolve at will; instead there are four routes to a general election, and one to a new government without an election.

    1) The five year fixed term is up; i.e. 5 May 2022. Fat chance.

    2) If the government loses a vote of confidence, a general election will follow unless the House vote confidence in a government within 14 days.

    The very strong implication is that if the monarch receives Privy Council advice that an alternative government could be formed, they are required to call the alternative leader to form one and obtain Commons support. (I foresee trouble here, if some chancers among the Leavers are given rein…)

    3) The government moves and wins a vote for an extraordinary dissolution; government is now openly mooting this; but it requires a 2/3 majority.

    4) An act is passed replacing or amending 2011 Act so as procure an election, only needs a simple majority BUT is subject to requirements of such so takes much longer to get through, especially with a minority and an uncooperative Speaker.

    Pedantic P.S.
    Stricly speaking the position of Prime Minister is one of convention, not statute or other written definition; the formal title of the minister concerned is “First Lord of the Treasury in Commission”, and their leadership based purely on the consent of fellow Cabinet ministers and the capacity to carry forward the sovereigns business in Parliament.

    IIRC it’s still not a formal requirement that they be a Commons MP. Though there hasn’t been a lord as PM since Lord Salisbury in 1902. In practice, of course, the Commons wouldn’t now permit a Peer as PM.
    Though just wait till Johnson makes Farage a peer…