Protests as UK’s Johnson suspends Parliament after fresh Brexit blows
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Protests as UK’s Johnson suspends Parliament after fresh Brexit blows

MPs refuse to back early election, block no-deal exit from EU and demand to see private communications about Brexit; opposition jeers as House of Commons shuts down for five weeks

Anti-Brexit protesters with signs and EU flags lit up with fairy lights stand next to pro-Brexit banners outside the Houses of Parliament in London on September 9, 2019 as MPs debate. (Tolga Akmen / AFP)
Anti-Brexit protesters with signs and EU flags lit up with fairy lights stand next to pro-Brexit banners outside the Houses of Parliament in London on September 9, 2019 as MPs debate. (Tolga Akmen / AFP)

LONDON — The simmering showdown between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Britain’s Parliament over Brexit came to a head as lawmakers delivered three defeats to the government’s plans for leaving the European Union, before being sent home early Tuesday for a contentious five-week suspension of the legislature.

In a session that ran past midnight, Parliament enacted a law to block a no-deal Brexit next month, ordered the government to release private communications about its Brexit plans and rejected Johnson’s call for a snap election to break the political deadlock.

Parliament was then set to be suspended at the government’s request until October 14, a drastic move that gives Johnson a respite from rebellious lawmakers as he plots his next move.

Johnson said he would cut short the parliamentary term so he can outline his domestic agenda at a new session of Parliament in October. But opponents called the move anti-democratic and illegal.

“It is blindingly obvious why we are being shut down — to prevent scrutiny,” Labour Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said.

In an extraordinary speech after announcing he would end his 10-year term next month, House of Commons Speaker John Bercow called the move “an act of executive fiat.”

A small scuffle ensued as an opposition MP attempted to keep Bercow from a ceremony that officially closes Parliament.

Labour MPs boycotted the prorogation ceremony, a rare parliamentary procedure, chanting “shame on you” as Tory lawmakers filed out after 1:30 a.m.

In the first of the day’s blows to Johnson, an opposition-backed measure designed to stop Britain from crashing out of the EU on October 31 without a divorce deal became law after receiving the formal assent of Queen Elizabeth II. The law compels the government to ask the EU for a three-month delay if no deal has been agreed by Oct. 19.

Legislators also demanded the government release, by Wednesday, emails and text messages among aides and officials relating to suspending Parliament and planning for Brexit amid allegations that the suspension is being used to circumvent democracy.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a press conference on the steps of the Government buildings in Dublin on September 9, 2019. (Lorraine O’SULLIVAN / AFP)

Under parliamentary rules, the government is obliged to release the documents.

In a statement, the government said it would “consider the implications of this vote and respond in due course.”

Britain is due to leave the EU on October 31, and Johnson says the country’s delayed exit must happen then, with or without a divorce agreement to smooth the way. But many lawmakers fear a no-deal Brexit would be economically devastating, and are determined to stop him.

“I will not ask for another delay,” Johnson said. But he has few easy ways out of it. His options — all of them extreme — include disobeying the law, which could land him in court or even prison, and resigning so that someone else would have to ask for a delay.

The prime minister has had a turbulent week since Parliament returned from its summer break on Sept. 3. He kicked 21 lawmakers out of the Conservative group in Parliament after they sided with the opposition, and saw two ministers quit his government — one of them his own brother.

Britain’s main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks during Question Time inside the House of Commons in London, July 10, 2019. (Jessica Taylor/House of Commons via AP)

Early Tuesday, lawmakers rebuffed, for a second time, Johnson’s request for an early election, which he said was “the only way to break the deadlock in the House.”

Opposition parties voted against the measure or abstained, denying Johnson the two-thirds majority he needed. They want to make sure a no-deal departure is blocked before agreeing to an election.

“We’re eager for an election, but as keen as we are we, we are not prepared to inflict the disaster of a no deal on our communities, our jobs, our services, or indeed our rights,” Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said.

Johnson acknowledged Monday that a no-deal Brexit “would be a failure of statecraft” for which he would be partially to blame.

On a visit to Dublin, Johnson said he would “overwhelmingly prefer to find an agreement” and believed a deal could be struck by October 18, when leaders of all 28 EU countries hold a summit in Brussels.

The comments marked a change of tone, if not substance, for Johnson, who is accused by opponents of driving Britain at full-tilt toward a cliff-edge Brexit.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar warned Johnson that “there’s no such thing as a clean break,” and if Britain crashed out, it would “cause severe disruption for British and Irish people alike.”

Johnson and Varadkar said they had “a positive and constructive meeting,” but there was no breakthrough on the issue of the Irish border, the main stumbling block to a Brexit deal.

Pro-Brexit supporters outside the Houses of Parliament, in London, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

The EU says Britain has not produced any concrete proposals for replacing the contentious “backstop,” a provision in the withdrawal agreement reached by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May that is designed to ensure an open border between EU member Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland.

An open border is crucial to the regional economy and underpins the peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

Opposition to the backstop was a key reason Britain’s Parliament rejected May’s Brexit deal with the EU three times earlier this year. British Brexit supporters oppose the backstop because it locks Britain into EU trade rules to avoid customs checks, something they say will stop the U.K. from striking new trade deals with countries such as the United States.

Varadkar said he was open to any alternatives that were “legally workable,” but none had been received so far.

“In the absence of agreed alternative arrangements, no backstop is no deal for us,” he said.

Bercow, whose control of business in Britain’s House of Commons has made him a central player in the Brexit drama, announced he would step down after a decade in the job.

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow gestures during a meeting at the G7 parliaments summit, in Brest, western France, September 6, 2019. (AP Photo/David Vincent, Pool)

The colorful speaker, famous for his loud ties and even louder cries of “Order!” during raucous debates, told lawmakers he will quit the same day Britain is due to leave the EU, October 31.

Throughout the three years since Britain voted to leave the EU, Bercow has angered the Conservative government by repeatedly allowing lawmakers to seize control of Parliament’s agenda to steer the course of Brexit.

He said he was simply fulfilling his role of being the “backbenchers’ backstop” and letting Parliament have its say.

“Throughout my time as speaker, I have sought to increase the relative authority of this legislature, for which I will make absolutely no apology,” he said.

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