Thousands of people across the United Kingdom took to the streets on Saturday to protest Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Wednesday decision to suspend Parliament for weeks ahead of the October 31 Brexit deadline. In London, Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds, Belfast, Birmingham, and elsewhere, protesters waved blue EU flags and protest banners, decrying what they describe as a “coup” to force the UK into embracing a no-deal Brexit strategy.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suspended Parliament through October 14 in what Vox’s Jen Kirby described as an attempt to prevent Members of Parliament (MPs) from fully legislating around Brexit before the October 31 deadline at which the UK is set to exit the EU.
The UK has yet to ratify the divorce deal negotiated with the EU by its previous prime minister, Theresa May. It could request more time to work on legislation to formally get the kingdom out of the European bloc, but Johnson has refused to do so — instead, he has promised to take the UK out of the EU on October 31 even without a deal, triggering what is known as a “no-deal Brexit.” Doing so could have devastating and long-lasting negative impacts on the UK’s economy, and could throw its supply chain in disarray in the near term, leading to shortages of food and medicine.
Despite this, Johnson has announced a five week-long suspension of Parliament — also known as “prorogation” — that is set to go into effect during the week of September 9. As Kirby reports, this means that MPs now have just over three weeks to legislate Brexit — either passing a Brexit deal, or blocking the UK from exiting the EU without a deal in place.
Johnson, a member of the Conservative party (also known as the Tories) and an early leader of the Brexit campaign who entered the UK’s top office on July 24, has defended his decision, saying he simply needed to draw the government’s legislative session to an end in order to prepare for “a new bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda for the renewal of our country after Brexit.”
Critics accused Johnson of sending the country to the edge of a constitutional crisis, and of running down the legislative clock in order to force a no-deal Brexit onto voters. The protests on Saturday centered on the message that prorogation, as Johnson has arranged it, is undemocratic, with many calling Johnson’s decision a “coup.”
In London, the protesters marched outside of 10 Downing Street, home to Britain’s Prime Minister and the Palace of Westminster, home to the houses of Parliament. Some blocked Waterloo Bridge and the streets of busy Trafalgar Square.
Others also marched toward Buckingham Palace, home of Queen Elizabeth II, who formally approved Johnson’s request for prorogation. (As Vox’s Jen Kirby has pointed out, although the queen has the right to deny such a request, she has opted to remain above the Brexit dispute for years now.)
A petition against prorogation has reached more than 1.6 million signatures, but turnout on Saturday — tens of thousands of people across the kingdom — was relatively low compared to organizers’ expectations of several hundred thousand. Some counterprotesters emerged in London, too, chanting “You lost Brexit,” according to CNN.
Top members from the opposition Labour party, including Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, spoke at the London protests. McDonnell called the protests “a fight to protect our democracy.”
And Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, addressed a crowd of protesters in Glasgow.
”I’m proud to be here with all of you supporting that, to say to Boris Johnson: no way, it’s our Parliament,” he said. “No way do you take us out without a deal. We will stop you and give the people their rights and their say to determine their future.”
Corbyn decried the Parliamentary suspension as an attempt to force through a no-deal Brexit and to curry favor with the Trump administration.
“We will do absolutely everything we can to prevent a no-deal Brexit and the prime minister taking us into the hands of Donald Trump and a trade deal with the USA,” Corbyn said.
Legal challenges to no-deal Brexit are on the horizon
The protests are a prelude to a series of legal challenges, both to the suspension of Parliament and to Brexit itself, that will soon be decided.
Courts in Glasgow and London will begin hearing legal challenges to the suspension on Tuesday, and a court in Northern Ireland will decide whether to hear a third challenge to the suspension.
Major figures in British politics, including former prime minister John Major and Jo Swinson, leader of the Liberal Democrats party, have agreed to support these legal maneuvers. Corbyn has also said he will be part of those efforts.
“It’s not on, and we’re not having it,” he said of prorogation on Saturday at the Glasgow protests.
Separately, lawmakers — who resume session on Tuesday, following their summer recess — plan to use their time before the prorogue begins to attempt to stave off a no-deal Brexit.
Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, is expected to introduce a draft bill on Tuesday to block a no-deal Brexit. He will be supported by Conservative MP Rory Stewart, and several Tory MPs are expected to sign on as well. Whether members of the rival parties can work together long enough — and whether enough Tories will defect from their prime minister — to succeed in stopping a no-deal Brexit remains to be seen, however.
What comes next?
The protesters on Saturday claimed that the prime minister’s move to suspend Parliament violates the democratic process during what has consistently been a tumultuous battle over the UK’s decision to exit the EU. They want him to re-open Parliament and to allow lawmakers to fully use the limited time left before October 31 to negotiate Brexit.
Although voters chose Brexit during a national referendum in 2016, the path to its implementation has been rocky; Theresa May, who was elected to guide the nation through the process, resigned in June after nearly three years of failed attempts to do so.
As Vox’s Jen Kirby explains, prorogation is Johnson’s risky attempt to avoid May’s mistakes. Each time she brought her Brexit deal before lawmakers, it was rejected. With his prorogue, Johnson has created a narrow passage for Parliamentary debate, and has created conditions in which the rejection of the draft exit deal would mean a disastrous no-deal Brexit. It’s an attempt to win Brexit at any cost — even though many of the proposed deal’s important details have yet to be hammered out:
In his campaign for prime minister, Johnson had promised to renegotiate May’s Brexit deal with the European Union. The EU repeatedly said it wasn’t going to reopen talks on the divorce deal, and that even if it did, it would not accept Johnson’s terms to get rid of the Irish backstop, a plan to avoid border checks on the boundary between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and Ireland (which will remain part of the EU). Johnson tried it anyway; the EU, surprising no one, said no. The impasse continues. There’s no new agreement to be had. So the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on October 31 seems a lot more possible.
The conundrum, of course, is that most of Parliament doesn’t want a no-deal scenario. The UK is extracting itself from a decades-long trading relationship, with unpredictable economic and political consequences. This doesn’t mean all MPs are supportive of staying in the EU; they just don’t want to be responsible for food and fuel shortages.
But opponents to a no-deal Brexit in Parliament are numerous, Kirby continues, and even given the pressure of a smaller legislative window, lawmakers could choose to cross party lines to block an exit without a strategy:
The suspension of Parliament is going to make no-deal legislation a lot harder to accomplish, especially since the body remains a fractious bunch. Those who support leaving without a deal, leaving with a deal, or remaining in the EU don’t split neatly along partisan lines. Even though a majority of MPs might oppose a no-deal Brexit, they’ll have to cross party lines, or join up with opponents to do so.
Indeed, Labour leaders have said they have Conservative allies who have agreed to cross Johnson and join them in introducing legislation that would redefine the Brexit debate. Even if this coalition succeeds in bringing a bill to their colleagues, however, Johnson has left his government very little time to consider their work.
And despite the efforts of protesters this weekend, as well as those of lawmaker in the week to come, time is running out. The choice under prorogation may end up being no-deal or May’s previously rejected deal. To avoid this choice, lawmakers will need to come up with a new plan in just a few short weeks after having failed to do so for more than two years. If they are unable to do so, they will have to follow Johnson into an unnegotiated future.