BRIGHTON, England—The historic supreme court judgment against Boris Johnson has rocked his authority and hammered any plans to try to force through a No-Deal Brexit against the expressed wishes of the country’s lawmakers.
If he thought he could bundle Britain out of the European Union before the notoriously slow judicial system had time to intervene, he’s been taught a humiliating lesson. Britain’s courts will uphold the rule of law and they will enforce it with the utmost speed if necessary.
The supreme court effectively ruled Tuesday that Johnson had stymied democracy, misleading the country and the Queen.
With chaos all around him—including a record run of defeats in Parliament and a hemorrhaging majority—Johnson has continued to insist that Britain will leave the European Union on Oct. 31 come what may.
Painted into a corner by his own Brexit strategy and with precious little evidence that a new deal with the EU is on the horizon, one of the only routes left to meet that Halloween deadline would be to try to find some kind of loophole in a law—known as the Benn Act—that was passed to force the prime minister to write a letter requesting another Brexit extension unless he secures a deal that is approved by Parliament.
Johnson has refused to rule out more parliamentary trickery, such as shutting down the House of Commons once again—using the royal power of prorogation—to push Britain over the cliff while there’s no one to hold the executive to account.
The supreme court judges—in an 11-0 unanimous defeat of the government—explicitly warned Johnson that they would stop him trying to stifle Parliament’s power again. “The court will intervene if the effect is sufficiently serious to justify such an exceptional course,” they wrote.
And yet, Johnson still repeated his mantra that Britain would leave at the end of next month when he faced the cameras in New York a few hours after the supreme court ruling that stunned politics.
Now that the judges have ordered Parliament to return, lawmakers will ramp up the pressure on Johnson with additional scrutiny on his Brexit plans, and potential demands to release more damaging internal papers.
With calls for him to resign after the extraordinary legal setback, Johnson sat alongside Donald Trump on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly as they bonded over their defiance of the courts. Hours before the announcement that Democrats would launch an impeachment inquiry, Trump said it was “just another day in the office.”
The opposition spokesman on Brexit, Sir Keir Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions, said the court’s action served as a reassurance that judges would not stand by if No. 10 tried to mount some kind of a legal argument that the prime minister retained the power to sidestep Parliament’s instructions, or could circumvent the wording of the anti-No Deal law.
“It’s a good warning, because if he thinks he is now going to break the Benn Act, he now knows what the court is going to do about it—it’s a shot across the bows for that as well,” Starmer said at an event at the Labour Party’s annual conference here on England’s south coast, where many of the key anti-Brexit lawmakers spent the week plotting to wreck Johnson’s plans.
The architect of the Benn Act, Hilary Benn, explained to The Daily Beast that he had drafted the law with unusual specificity and directness because he and his colleagues were unable to rely on Johnson and the Downing Street operation to abide by the spirit of the legislation.
“We structured the law in the way that we did because there was a lack of trust in what he might do. It’s very unusual to draft the law in a way which says you must do this and, by the way, here’s the letter you’ve got to send so you can’t send a different one. And I think the fact that he has gone around the country saying ‘I’m not going to apply for an extension’ is incompatible with the law that is now on the statute book,” he said.
Benn said the speed of the supreme court, which cut short its summer recess to consider the parliamentary shutdown, had reassured him that it would react in time if Johnson were to attempt any further trickery.
“The courts would understand the extraordinary importance of resolving this before the 31st of October. In the same way that the supreme court met to consider the prorogation case, I would expect the court to realize there’s no good forming a judgment after we’ve left that he had acted illegally,” he said.
Johnson put his premiership on the line this month and called for a general election, hoping that he could stave off a challenge from the right—in the shape of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party—if he was able to secure a vote before the October deadline.
He knows that failing to deliver on his signature promise will open the door to a possible Conservative wipeout at the hands of Farage. In this year’s European elections, the Brexit Party surged to a win on 32 percent of the vote while the Tories were pushed into fifth place on just 9 percent.
Now that Johnson has lost his majority in the House of Commons, however, he has little power to control events. The opposition parties agreed among themselves to hold off on an election until a new Brexit extension had been agreed, which would mean Johnson had failed to deliver his Halloween exit.
It is likely that in the weeks after that, Britain will return groaning to the polls to try and elect a House of Commons that can resolve the Brexit crisis once and for all.
Current polls point to the Conservative Party winning the most seats overall but it could well fall short of an overall majority, raising the possibility of another hung Parliament in which nobody has control. Another scenario would see a combination of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party holding the balance of power.
This week, Labour’s conference delegates voted to stand on a platform that would offer to hold a referendum within six months of being elected—something that the Lib Dems and SNP are likely to support. Thus the prospect of a bitter and vicious second Brexit referendum becomes a realistic prospect for the first time.
The Conservatives will try to stave that off by railing against the “elites” in the courts and the Houses of Parliament, who they claim have thwarted the wishes of the people who voted Leave in 2016.
“This whole idea of people versus Parliament when he’s using the ancient powers of a king to close down the forum where people are represented is ridiculous,” said Starmer. That doesn’t mean the idea won’t gain traction with large swaths of the country spurred on by Brexiteers and supportive newspapers who responded to the supreme court’s unanimous verdict by attacking the 11 most senior judges in the land.
The coming election is going to be brutal, but it may finally prove to be decisive one way or the other. For three years after the Brexit referendum, the prospect of keeping Britain inside the European Union seemed remote. But asked if Brexit could now be stopped, Starmer smiled as he told The Daily Beast: “Yes!”