Britain’s Supreme Court began a hearing Tuesday to decide whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson broke the law when he suspended Parliament just weeks before the U.K. is due to leave the European Union, in a case that pits the powers of elected lawmakers against those of the executive.
Johnson sent lawmakers home from Sept. 9 until Oct. 14, which is barely two weeks before the scheduled Brexit day of Oct. 31.
The decision outraged many lawmakers, who say it’s designed to prevent them from challenging Johnson’s plan to take Britain out of the EU next month, with or without a divorce deal.
The suspension sparked legal challenges, to which lower courts have given contradictory rulings. England’s High Court said the suspension was a political rather than legal matter, but Scottish court judges ruled last week that Johnson acted illegally “to avoid democratic scrutiny.”
The U.K.’s top court is being asked to decide who was right, in a case scheduled to last up to three days. It is considering two questions: Is this a matter for the courts; and, if so, did the government break the law?
Critics: PM trying ‘to silence Parliament’
David Pannick, attorney for transparency campaigner Gina Miller, said Johnson had improperly suspended the legislature “to silence Parliament … because he sees Parliament as an obstacle to the furtherance of his political aims.”
Pannick said it was a fundamental constitutional principle that “Parliament is sovereign and the executive is accountable to Parliament.”
He said the five-week suspension of Parliament was the longest in decades and called it “remarkable” that the prime minister had not submitted a witness statement to the court outlining his reasons.
In the absence of a sworn statement, “we say the court should infer that there is no answer” to the allegation that Johnson acted improperly, he said.
Johnson, however, argues that the suspension is routine, and will allow his government to launch its domestic agenda with a new session of Parliament.
The court heard Tuesday from the government’s lawyers, who have argued in a written submission that the issue is “intrinsically one of high policy and politics, not law.”
“There are no judicial or manageable standards by reference to which the courts could assess the lawfulness of ministerial decisions,” they argue.
Lawyer Richard Keen, acting for the government, told the court that the Scottish judges “have simply gone where the court should not go.
“The courts are not to cross the boundaries and intrude upon the proceedings in Parliament,” he said.
There will be submissions later from the governments of Scotland and Wales and former prime minister John Major — all supporting the challenges to the government — and from a Northern Ireland campaigner who argues a no-deal Brexit would endanger the peace process there.
Johnson hasn’t said what he will do if the judges rule the suspension illegal. He told the BBC he would “wait and see what they say.”
Keen promised that “the prime minister will take any necessary steps to comply with any declaration made by the court.” But he had no answer when judges asked if Johnson might recall Parliament on the court’s order, only to suspend it again.
“I’m not in a position to comment on that,” he said.
Johnson vows to break free of EU
The case is the latest twist in a Brexit saga that has divided British politicians and the public for more than three years, since the country narrowly voted in 2016 to leave the EU.
Protesters with signs reading “reopen Parliament” and “defend our democracy” stood silently outside the courthouse across from the Houses of Parliament before the case opened, alongside a performer painted green and wearing a blond wig who called himself “The Incredible Sulk.”
Johnson told a newspaper over the weekend that the U.K. would break free of the EU “like the Hulk.”
The prime minister insists the U.K. must leave the EU on Oct. 31 with or without a divorce agreement, though he says he believes there is time to strike a deal with the bloc in time for an orderly departure.
But the EU says Britain has yet to offer any “legally operational” solutions to the problem of keeping goods and people flowing freely across the Irish border, the main roadblock to a deal.
The leader of the European Parliament’s biggest party group said Tuesday that “no progress” was being made in Brexit talks.
Manfred Weber, who heads the center-right European People’s Party bloc, said in Strasbourg that “there is no proposal from the British side on the table.”