LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson will suspend Britain’s parliament for more than a month before Brexit, enraging opponents and raising the stakes in the country’s most serious political crisis in decades.
Cheered on by U.S President Donald Trump, Johnson launched his boldest move yet to take the country out of the European Union by Oct. 31 with or without a divorce deal, by setting a new date for a state opening of parliament.
Known as the Queen’s Speech, the formal event will be held on Oct. 14 and be preceded by a suspension of the House of Commons, meaning parliament will not sit between mid-September and mid-October.
The move, which had to be approved by Queen Elizabeth, limits the time opponents have to derail a disorderly Brexit, but also increases the chance that Johnson could face a vote of no-confidence in his government, and possibly an election.
It also risks dragging the 93-year-old, politically neutral queen into the dispute. So incensed were leaders of the opposition parties by Johnson’s plan that several have written to the monarch asking for a meeting to express their concern.
The queen acts on the advice of her prime minister. Her office declined to comment. Her speech at the opening of parliament is written by the government, outlining its plans for legislation.
“There will be ample time in parliament for MPs (members of parliament) to debate the EU, to debate Brexit and all the other issues, ample time,” Johnson told reporters.
Asked if he was trying to block MPs from delaying Britain’s EU departure, he replied: “That is completely untrue.”
While suspending parliament ahead of a Queen’s Speech is the historical norm in Britain, the decision to limit parliamentary scrutiny weeks before the country’s most contentious policy decision in decades prompted an immediate outcry.
“Make no mistake, this is a very British coup,” John McDonnell, the second most powerful man in the opposition Labour Party, said. More than half a million people signed an online petition to object and the pound fell sharply.
Cries of “Shame on You” and “Stop the Coup” could be heard from inside the walls of the parliamentary estate, as a couple of hundred protesters gathered near the bank of the River Thames to wave EU flags and show their disgust.
“Democracy is so important. It’s taught from such a young age as such a vital thing about being a British person and today just completely ruins that, tramples it and throws it out,” said 17-year-old student Dylan Butlin, one of the protesters.
In a sign that Johnson’s move had marked a significant escalation in the long-running dispute, a group of cross-party lawmakers sought a legal injunction and the speaker of parliament said the nation’s democratic process was at risk.
The Church of England said a chaotic Brexit would hurt the poor and further damage a fractured nation.
But Johnson’s gamble was welcomed by Brexiteers, including Trump, an early backer of Britain’s departure from the EU, who said “Boris is exactly what the U.K. has been looking for, & will prove to be ‘a great one!’ Love U.K.”
A spokeswoman for the European Commission, when asked about the British suspension of parliament, said it was a matter for Britain to answer.
More than three years after the United Kingdom voted 52% to 48% to quit the European Union, it is still unclear on what terms the bloc’s second largest economy will leave the club it joined in 1973.
With just 65 days until exit day, parliamentarians are battling to prevent the prime minister from steering the country out of the EU without a transition deal, pitching one of Europe’s most stable countries into uncharted territory.
On Tuesday, the leaders of Britain’s opposition parties had agreed to seek to use parliamentary procedure to force Johnson to ask Brussels for a delay to Brexit beyond Oct. 31. They may now try to bring him down.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he would call a no-confidence vote when the time was right.
With Johnson holding a working majority of just one seat in the 650-seat parliament, members of his party who oppose a no-deal Brexit will have to decide where their loyalties lie.
The pro-EU Conservative Party lawmaker Dominic Grieve said he would find it difficult to “keep confidence in the government” in the circumstances while Philip Hammond, a former finance minister, said pro-EU politicians needed to act now.
In a sign of the pressure building across the political system, media reports said Ruth Davidson, who led a resurgence for the Conservatives in Scotland, had decided to quit.
The BBC said her resignation, expected to be announced on Thursday, was not sparked by the suspension but had been coming for several months due to family pressures and disagreements with Johnson’s approach. She sits in the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh and not Westminster.
Sterling fell sharply, losing around a cent against the U.S. dollar and the euro, as investors took the news as a sign that a no-deal Brexit, was more likely.
Johnson argued, however, that the move was designed to allow his government to press on with its domestic agenda.
He says he wants to agree a divorce deal with Brussels but needs the bloc to change its stance on a key sticking point around neighbour Ireland first. A leading campaigner in the 2016 Brexit referendum, he has also said Britain must leave the EU to maintain the nation’s faith in politics.
Dean Turner, economist at UBS Wealth Management, said their base case remained that a no-deal Brexit would not occur on Oct. 31 and that an election would follow.
“It forces the hand (of Johnson’s opponents), compelling them to act sooner and more decisively if they wish to do so,” he said.
Parliament returns from its summer break on Sept. 3 before typically breaking up two weeks later to allow political parties to hold their annual conferences. Returning again on Oct. 14 would leave just over two weeks until Britain is due to quit the EU on Oct. 31.
Those lawmakers opposed to a no-deal Brexit will likely have to make their move next week if they are to avoid running out of time.
Additional reporting by William Schomberg, David Milliken, Costas Pitas, Paul Sandle, Andy Bruce, Iona Serrapica and Alistair Smout; Writing by Kate Holton, Editing by Angus MacSwan