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UK’s Johnson moves to suspend Parliament ahead of Brexit

Anti-Brexit supporters wave flags and hold signs at College Green near the Houses of Parliament in central London on Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson maneuvered Wednesday to give his political opponents even less time to block a chaotic no-deal Brexit before the Oct. 31 withdrawal deadline, winning Queen Elizabeth II’s approval to suspend Parliament. His critics were outraged.

Though Johnson previously had refused to rule out such a move, the timing of the decision took lawmakers — many of whom are on vacation — by surprise.

Johnson insisted he was taking the step so he could outline his domestic agenda, and he shot down the notion that he was curbing debate, saying there would be “ample time” to discuss Brexit and other issues.

Lawmakers reacted with fury, including John Bercow, speaker of the lower House of Commons, who was not told in advance of Johnson’s plan.

“Shutting down Parliament would be an offense against the democratic process and the rights of parliamentarians as the people’s elected representatives,” Bercow said. “Surely at this early stage in his premiership, the prime minister should be seeking to establish rather than undermine his democratic credentials and indeed his commitment to Parliamentary democracy.”

The main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn wrote to the queen to protest “in the strongest possible terms on behalf of my party and I believe all the other opposition parties are going to join in with this.”

The monarch, however, kept with her steadfast refusal to get involved in politics.

The House of Commons will convene from Sept. 3-10 and then was scheduled to go on a break until Oct. 9 — though lawmakers had suggested they might cancel that break and stay in session because of the Brexit crisis.

Johnson said he decided to ask the queen to give her speech that outlines the government’s legislative agenda on Oct. 14, and she approved suspending Parliament for a total of 32 days between Sept. 12 and Oct. 14. That makes it unlikely the lawmakers would have enough time to pass laws blocking the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union without a negotiated divorce deal by Oct. 31.

“This is completely normal procedure,” House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg told Sky News.

But shadow chancellor John McDonnell tweeted: “Make no mistake, this is a very British coup.”

“Whatever one’s views on Brexit, once you allow a Prime Minister to prevent the full and free operation of our democratic institutions you are on a very precarious path,” he said.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit official, called Johnson’s move “sinister.”

“As a fellow parliamentarian, my solidarity with those fighting for their voices to be heard,” he tweeted. “Suppressing debate on profound choices is unlikely to help deliver a stable future EU-UK relationship.”

The pound plunged on the news, down to $1.2196 from almost $1.2300 the previous day.

The EU is adamant it will not renegotiate the agreement struck with former Prime Minister Theresa May on the terms of Britain’s departure and the framework of future relations. Without such a deal, Britain faces a chaotic Brexit that economists warn would disrupt trade by imposing tariffs and customs checks between Britain and the bloc, send the value of the pound plummeting and plunge the U.K. into recession. May resigned in defeat after failing — three times — to secure Parliament’s backing for her divorce deal with the bloc.

Hundreds of people packed College Green outside Parliament, waving EU flags and placards to express their anger, while 25 bishops from the Church of England released an open letter about their worries about the “economic shocks” of a no-deal Brexit on the poor and other vulnerable people.

A petition on a government website demanding that Parliament not be suspended has gotten more than 100,000 signatures — guaranteeing that it will be considered for debate.

Lawmakers already are asking a Scottish court to rule that suspending Parliament is illegal. If that fails, pro-EU legislators are also planning to try to pass a law banning a no-deal Brexit, although the government has now sharply limited their time to do that.

Another option is to bring down the government with a no-confidence vote. That would spark a 14-day period in which Johnson could try to overturn the result. If he failed, there would be a general election — but the government believes it would not have to be held until after the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline.

During that key 14 days after a no-confidence vote, another lawmaker could try to win Parliament’s backing in a vote. If they succeeded, Johnson should, in theory, have to step down and let the winner form a government.

But these rules were introduced in a 2011 law and have never been tested, leaving plenty of room for argument.

“If Parliament is suspended to suit Boris Johnson, it’s not just going to be suspended from discussing Brexit. We could go to war,” Labour spokeswoman on legal issues Shami Chakrabarti told the BBC. “People will work together to stop this unconstitutional suspension of Parliament and we will get greater unity on that even than on stopping a no-deal Brexit.”

On Tuesday, opposition lawmakers declared that they would join forces to try to stop a departure from the EU without an agreement, setting up a legislative challenge to Johnson and his past promises to complete the divorce deal.

Some 160 lawmakers have signed a declaration pledging “to do whatever is necessary” to prevent Johnson from bypassing Parliament.

Johnson has told European officials it won’t be possible to agree a deal on Britain’s departure from the bloc without the removal of controversial language on a “backstop” aimed at avoiding the return of a border between EU member Ireland and Britain’s Northern Ireland. He said at the close of the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Monday that he was “marginally more optimistic,” of progress.

Scott Lucas, a professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, said Johnson’s maneuver touched off the biggest crisis since the abdication of King Edward VIII to marry the divorced American socialite, Wallis Simpson.

“This is biggest constitutional crisis since the 1930s,” Lucas said. “Even World War II didn’t present a constitutional crisis because the coalition government and Parliament agreed the rules of the game.”

It’s also a potential economic crisis because of the projected drop in GDP, he added.

Johnson did earn support from one big backer: U.S. President Donald Trump. Just days after the two met at the G-7 summit, Trump reaffirmed his support by tweeting that the prime minister “is exactly what the U.K. has been looking for, & will prove to be ‘a great one!’ “

Associated Press writer Jill Lawless contributed.