Prime minister Boris Johnson today asked the Queen to suspend the UK parliament from around Sept. 10 until two weeks before the country’s scheduled departure from the European Union, on Oct. 31. The government has justified the move on the grounds that “proroguing” parliament is customary in order to set out a new legislative agenda. However, the planned suspension extends the traditional three-week parliamentary break for party conference season to five weeks. The suspension would run until Oct. 14.
The news set off a firestorm among MPs and political leaders of various stripes. “I have had no contact from the government, but if the report that it is seeking to prorogue parliament are confirmed, this move represents a constitutional outrage,” said John Bercow, speaker of the House.
Johnson’s letter to colleagues outlining his rationale has since been released.
The move to shut down parliament came a day after opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn convened cross-party talks to prevent the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal. The Labour party, Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, Change UK, Plaid Cymru, and the Green party agreed to a plan to block a no-deal departure through legislation. Johnson, a leading figure in 2016 Brexit referendum, has vowed to depart the bloc “do or die, come what may.”
If the past two days are anything to go by, the next two months will probably be more consequential for how Brexit unfolds than the three years since the referendum. Recent developments also underscore that the Brexit process could play out in a number of wildly different ways.
Here are some of the possible scenarios:
Thanks, but no thanks
In theory, the Queen could decline Johnson’s request. But that would be unprecedented—and probably unnecessary, as the opposition has a number of tools available to respond to the Brexit crisis.
The move could revive Corbyn’s initial instinct, which other opposition parties have rebuffed, to call a no-confidence vote to topple Johnson’s Conservative government. That would mean a caretaker prime minister with limited powers and on a time-limited basis—whether that’s Corbyn or someone else remains a particularly thorny issue. When an election is held, the parties would lay out clear positions on Brexit. (Corbyn has said Labour would campaign on a second Brexit referendum.)
That might be what Johnson hopes—he has a working majority in parliament of just one seat, with the backing of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. A snap poll would allow him to campaign on a slogan of MPs “stealing” Brexit, and possibly increase his party’s fortunes. He has also announced a raft of spending measures since taking office in July, to win over public support.
The attempt to shut down parliament has already prompted a challenge in the Scottish courts, and others that could lead to cancelling Brexit might follow. Several prominent figures, including a former prime minister, have also threatened to sue over the move.
Jo Maugham, a lawyer who has brought a number of legal challenges to Brexit, tweeted that it could lead to staying in the EU.
The UK could also just crash out of the EU, which is the default course of action. That could come about in a number of ways. Parliamentary suspension could cause lawmakers to run out of time to pass legislation to stop no-deal. The opposition might fail to secure enough support to block it. Potential legal challenges could be unsuccessful. Johnson may also call a snap election, though he would need two-thirds of MPs to agree to it, and hold onto power until then.
It’s possible Johnson could in fact secure a new Brexit agreement—with a few cosmetic changes—though that appears to be very unlikely. Any such deal would have to be negotiated and ratified before Oct. 31, unless Brexit is delayed again.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Johnson’s letter to the Queen was made public. The letter was in fact addressed to colleagues, and came after he met the Queen.