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No-deal Brexit: John Major vows to fight parliamentary prorogation in court

Former British Prime Minister John Major
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Former British Prime Minister John Major
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Former British Prime Minister John Major

Former PM willing to personally seek a judicial review if Boris Johnson tries to suspend the Commons

Reaction William Gritten
Thursday, July 11, 2019 - 7:03am

Sir John Major has said he is prepared to personally seek a judicial review to prevent any future prime minister bypassing parliament to achieve a no-deal Brexit.

The former prime minister’s remarks were directed at Tory leadership front-runner Boris Johnson, who has refused to take that option off the table. Johnson argues the threat of a no-deal Brexit is necessary to strengthen his negotiating position with the EU, but many MPs are against it.

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In March parliament surprised the government by voting 312 to 308 to reject a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances. 

Johnson has signalled that he is open to the idea of proroguing, or suspending, parliament to push a no-deal exit through in order to leave the EU by 31 October.

Major believes that doing so would imperil the integrity of British parliamentary democracy.

Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, he condemned the “artificial” 31 October Brexit deadline arguing it has “a great deal more to do with the election of leader for the Conservative Party than the interests of the country”.

He added: “National leaders look first at the interests of the country - not first at the interests of themselves.”

To close down parliament, the PM would have to ask permission from the Queen, and Major said it would be “inconceivable” for Her Majesty not to accede to his request.

“The Queen’s decision cannot be challenged in law, but the prime minister’s advice to the Queen can, I believe, be challenged in law - and I for one would be prepared to seek judicial review to prevent parliament being bypassed,” he said.

Johnson responded, saying “I think it’s absolutely bizarre at this stage in the negotiations for the UK - yet again - to be weakening its own position.”

Conservative MP and Johnson supporter Chris Philp told BBC Radio 5 Live: “Prorogation is not the plan A, or even plan B or plan C. The main plan is to get a deal agreed with the European Union.”

But Norman Smith, assistant political editor for the BBC, argues the issue has now become the central fault-line dividing the Tories: “It is not the backstop, not the Northern Ireland border, not the date we leave. The real dividing line is over attitudes to no deal,” he writes.

“In the macho politics of Brexit, a willingness to blow up centuries of parliamentary democracy is the latest virility test,” writes Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. “In this climate, it actually helps Johnson to be pitted against a man whom hardcore Brexiters see as a Brussels-loving, remainer weakling. Major’s calm reasoning will be dismissed as mere defeatism.”

Indeed, The Sun says “senior Tories hit back by branding Sir John ‘bonkers’ and slamming the BBC Today programme for airing his ‘clear Remain bias’. One veteran said: ‘Major’s been driven completely mad by Brexit.’”

Major’s intervention is an act of “breath-taking hypocrisy, coming as it does from one of the few Prime Ministers who actually used the prorogation of Parliament as a device to avoid scrutiny”, writes Douglas Carswell, the MP who defected from the Tories to Ukip and now sits as an independent.

He continues in The Daily Telegraph: “Back in 1997, Major’s failed administration prorogued Parliament to avoid the publication of a report into the cash-for-questions affair while the house was sitting, in advance of the 1997 general election.”

Major himself also levels accusations of hypocrisy: “I seem to recall that the Brexiteers, led by Mr Johnson, actually campaigned in the referendum for the sovereignty of Parliament... They can’t be concerned for the sovereignty of Parliament except when it is inconvenient to Mr Johnson.”

His comments came on the same day that MPs approved, by “the thinnest of margins”, a requirement for government to produce fortnightly reports from October until December “on the progress towards restoring the power sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland”, reports the BBC.

“While the success of that one amendment probably won’t block prorogation, it could make it more difficult,” says the broadcaster.

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