LONDON — Normally, in times of national crisis, British leaders convene Parliament. But as the country confronts its biggest crisis in many decades, Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems intent on doing the opposite.
On Wednesday, Johnson threw the Brexit debate into new turmoil by shortening the already dwindling time Parliament has left to try to prevent a potentially chaotic no-deal departure from the European Union. Opposition politicians denounced the move to limit the time for debate as undemocratic and possibly unconstitutional.
Johnson’s startling maneuver to tighten Parliament’s schedule in October set the stage for a heated compressed showdown with Parliament as the Oct. 31 deadline for Brexit bears down.
The speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, called Johnson’s decision a “constitutional outrage.” Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, denounced it as “reckless,” while the party’s finance policy spokesman, John McDonnell, called it a “very British coup.”
“Whatever one’s views on Brexit, once you allow a Prime Minister to prevent the full and free operation of our democratic institutions you are on a very precarious path,” McDonnell wrote on Twitter.
Parliament was scheduled to meet during the first two weeks of September and then to be suspended for annual political party conferences. It was then scheduled to reconvene around Oct. 9.
But in a letter sent Wednesday to all members of Parliament, Johnson said he intended to ask Queen Elizabeth II to “prorogue,” or suspend, Parliament for around a further week and to have it resume on Oct. 14, with the “Queen’s speech,” in which the monarch traditionally lays out the government’s agenda.
The monarch’s approval is considered a formality, and hours after the announcement the government said that the queen had approved the request.
In a video interview Wednesday morning, Johnson said he had made his decision in order to progress with “our plans to take this country forward” and to “get on with our domestic agenda.”
But his ploy is risky. Just how risky became clear Tuesday evening with reports that the widely admired Conservative leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, unable to defend Johnson’s Brexit policies, was on the verge of resigning.
While Johnson’s maneuver seemed like a bolt out of the blue, it was telegraphed weeks ago by his chief strategist, Dominic Cummings. It also seemed timed to inflict maximum damage on the efforts of opponents of a no-deal Brexit, who had agreed just the day before to coordinate a legislative assault on a no-deal Brexit.
Their time for maneuver was already limited, and Wednesday’s move will further restrict it by eliminating the option of shortening the scheduled break in September for party conferences — something lawmakers were considering. On top of that, the period of a Queen’s speech is likely to take up several critical days, as Parliament debates the proposals.
The prime minister’s strike against the anti-Brexit forces also conforms to a strategy he developed during the campaign for the Conservative Party leadership earlier in the summer, when he promised to withdraw Britain from the European Union by Oct. 31, “do or die.”
He has maintained that stance ever since, and some analysts see it as a tactic leading up to a general election that many consider inevitable.
Keeping open the possibility of a no-deal exit is the only source of leverage Johnson has as he tries to persuade the European Union to accept changes in the withdrawal deal that will make it acceptable to a Parliament that has already voted it down three times.
His hard-line stance also guards against the electoral threat of the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage, whose raison d’être is Brexit at any cost.
In the event of an election, Johnson’s adamantly pro-Brexit stance will enable him to present himself as the champion of the people against a Parliament that has betrayed voters’ desire to leave the bloc.
“I suspect Number 10 believes it has created a win win scenario with this explosive announcement,” Craig Oliver, who was director of communications for then-Prime Minister David Cameron, wrote on Twitter. “Yes — and they get Brexit by October 31st; No — and they get to fight a ‘people versus parliament’ general election.”
There is one potential drawback to Johnson’s maneuver. Some Conservative lawmakers in the rebel ranks had been pulling back from the prospect of voting against the government in the next two weeks because of speculation that the prime minister was making progress in negotiations with the European Union.
They now may believe they can no longer afford to wait and see. One of the leading Tory rebels, former attorney general Dominic Grieve, told Sky News that Johnson was behaving more “like a revolutionary than a Conservative prime minister — this is tantamount to a coup really against Parliament.”