September 24, 2019 / 2:06 PM / 8 months ago

Breakingviews - Johnson’s legal spanking barely moves Brexit dial

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a roundtable at Downing Street in London, Britain, September 19, 2019.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Boris Johnson has received a Brexit spanking. Britain’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the prime minister’s decision to shut down the country’s parliament was “unlawful, void and of no effect”. It’s the latest setback in a two-month premiership that has included multiple parliamentary defeats and the loss of his majority in the House of Commons. When it comes to determining the outcome of Brexit, however, the decision barely moves the dial.

In more normal times, the devastating verdict delivered by Supreme Court President Brenda Hale would have ended Johnson’s political career. The 11 judges unanimously concluded the government wanted to prevent parliament from carrying out its constitutional function. Advising the Queen to suspend parliament for five weeks inevitably dragged the monarch into the controversy.

However, these are not normal times. Johnson’s government does not have a majority and cannot pass legislation. Usually this would lead to an election. But opposition parties refuse to grant the prime minister a ballot until Britain has secured an extension to the Brexit deadline, which currently ends on Oct. 31.

Johnson’s Brexit choices therefore remain much the same as before. He can try to secure a new deal to leave the European Union at a summit scheduled for Oct. 17. If this fails, as seems likely, he is required by parliament to seek an extension to Britain’s scheduled departure date – something Johnson has said he will never do.

The Supreme Court decision probably makes it harder for Johnson to ignore parliament’s wishes, or to shut it down again. If he does not seek an extension, he will have to step aside for an interim prime minister who would. Either way, Britain would stay in the EU beyond Oct. 31, breaking Johnson’s “do or die” promise to leave by that date.

Britain is therefore still probably heading for an election later in the year. Despite the chaos of the past two months, Johnson’s Conservative Party leads the opinion polls. His pitch to the electorate will be that he needs an electoral mandate to overcome resistance to Brexit from parliament, from other EU countries, and from the courts. It’s far from clear whether Tuesday’s legal spanking will hurt or help his case.


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