The UK’s Brexit saga entered a new phase early Tuesday, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson prorogued – or suspended– Parliament for more than a month.
With the country just weeks away from its October 31 deadline to leave the European Union, Johnson’s decision has been a deeply controversial one.
Those sitting on opposing benches in Parliament say the new Prime Minister is attempting to shut down debate and allow the country to slide towards a no-deal split from the EU – but the government insists the prorogation is constitutional and entirely normal for a new administration.
Confused? Here’s everything you need to know about the latest episode in this political soap opera.
Why does Boris Johnson want to suspend Parliament?
Johnson announced his intention to prorogue Parliament at the end of August. The move took effect amid chaotic scenes in the early hours of Tuesday morning, and Parliament won’t open again until October 14.
For most of the five-week period, Parliament may not have been sitting anyway – it was due to rise at the end of this week for party conference season, returning in the second week of October. So Johnson’s prorogation has only added a handful of days to the length of time MPs are away. But some lawmakers were plotting to force the House of Commons to sit during the conferences recess anyway.
The Prime Minister said the suspension was needed to make way for a new Queen’s Speech – which sets out the government’s legislative agenda and marks the start of a new parliamentary session. By convention, a Queen’s Speech usually takes place every year, and Parliament is always prorogued before it is reopened by the monarch.
Bu the previous PM Theresa May allowed the current parliamentary session to run on far longer than normal, given the protracted nature of the Brexit crisis.
There’s no set time period for a prorogation before a Queen’s Speech – in 2016 it was just four working days, while in 2014 the chamber was closed for 13 days.
So why is this suspension controversial?
Johnson’s opponents have claimed he is shutting down Parliament to stifle debate, and to allow the clock to run down on Brexit.
In an extraordinary intervention, the Speaker of the House John Bercow – whose role is traditionally impartial – said it was “blindly obvious” Johnson was attempting to limit debate over Brexit with the move.
“Shutting down Parliament would be an offense against the democratic process and the rights of Parliamentarians as the people’s elected representatives,” Bercow said in a statement.
Johnson has repeatedly insisted he will allow Britain to exit the EU with no deal on October 31 – but the majority of lawmakers are opposed to that idea, and have been working to block it.
A handful of legal attempts to overturn the prorogation have failed, allowing it to take place as planned.
I thought Johnson wanted an election?
He does. His hands are tied by a Parliament set against no-deal Brexit, and now he doesn’t even have a majority in the House of Commons. Last week, Johnson expelled 21 lawmakers from his Conservative Party after they defied him on a bill to block a no-deal Brexit, leaving him with no room for maneuver in Parliament.
The problem for Johnson is that to call an early election a Prime Minister needs two-thirds of MPs to vote in favor of it – and he can’t get close to that.
That’s because Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has spent two years demanding an election, is leading an united effort of opposition MPs to vote it down.
Corbyn is insisting that Britain should only go to the polls once a no-deal Brexit has been taken off the table.
That puts Johnson in a tough spot – some opinion polls suggest he would win an early election, but if he can’t get one before November he will be forced to ask Brussels for another Brexit extension, by a bill that passed Parliament last week and achieved royal assent on Monday.
What is a no-deal Brexit?
If the UK reaches the October 31 deadline without having a withdrawal agreement in place, the legal default is that it will just leave the EU without one.
In an instant, the country would lose its access to the EU’s single market and customs union, which facilitate trade between the bloc’s members. All manner of legal arrangements agreed by EU bodies will no longer apply in the UK, and businesses, public bodies and citizens would have to deal with the changes that leaving the EU would bring.
It’s the outcome that May, the country’s opposition parties, and a majority of lawmakers in Parliament have been working for three years to avoid, and is shrouded in warnings from economists and business leaders.
According to forecasts by the Bank of England, the Treasury and the Office for Budget Responsibility, a no-deal Brexit could push the UK into a recession.
But some Conservative MPs have been arguing in favor of a no-deal Brexit, on the basis that it would increase Britain’s freedom to manage its own trade deals, laws and border arrangements, and end the current period of political uncertainty.
Unfortunately for Johnson, he’s been forced to ask for a Brexit delay in October if no-deal is the only other option.
Expect that to lead to a showdown, with Johnson potentially scrambling for a way to defy the law and maintain his repeated insistence that, on October 31, Britain will exit the bloc with or without a deal.
What happens after the suspension?
The pause button will be pressed on parliamentary efforts to ensure Britain won’t leave the EU without a deal, and MPs will head to their respective party’s conferences – which are sure to be dominated by Brexit.
They’ll return in mid-October to hear the new Queen’s Speech, and will then hold a vote on its contents – essentially a litmus test for any government to see whether they command the majority of lawmakers.
Johnson could well lose that vote, and that would give Labour’s Corbyn an opportunity to form an alternative government without the need for an election. But that also looks unlikely – while most lawmakers are against no-deal, that doesn’t mean they support the leftist Corbyn, whose Labour Party has fewer seats than the Conservatives.
In other words, a frantic dash to form a government in late October is possible – with just days or even hours to go until Britain’s Brexit deadline.
Does a suspended Parliament make no-deal Brexit more likely?
It’s unclear – in theory, no-deal is off the table on October 31 because of the new legislation.
But Johnson isn’t backing down from bullish rhetoric about leaving on that date – so something is going to have to give.
If the Prime Minister finds a way around the law, there will be very little time in late October for lawmakers to pass another one.
Don’t rule anything out before then, however. The Brexit saga will undoubtedly take more twists and turns in the coming weeks.