LONDON – A defiant Boris Johnson hit back at the U.K.’s top judges on Tuesday and vowed to take the country out of the European Union next month despite suffering an unprecedented legal defeat over his Brexit strategy.
In a sweeping rebuke to the prime minister, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that Johnson had broken the law when he decided to suspend Parliament for five weeks in the run-up to the Oct. 31 deadline for leaving the EU. He had given Queen Elizabeth II “unlawful” advice to pause the legislature and wrecked the ability of Britain’s elected politicians to fulfill their crucial democratic role overseeing his government’s actions, the court found.
Johnson said he would “obviously” respect the verdict but retaliated immediately. “I have to say that I strongly disagree with what the justices have found,” he said in a pooled interview in New York. “I don’t think that it’s right, but we will go ahead, and of course Parliament will come back.”
Privately, some in Johnson’s team went further. In a phone call, Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg accused the judges of staging a power grab, effectively overthrowing the constitution by ruling on the way Parliament operates, according to two people familiar with the matter. Rees-Mogg was one of the ministers who traveled to meet the queen to ask her formally to suspend Parliament.
The ruling marks an extraordinary constitutional moment and an unprecedented political crisis for the U.K. It blows a hole in Johnson’s political authority and calls into question his ability to remain in office as the queen’s principal adviser. Senior politicians, including the former Conservative Prime Minister John Major, demanded that he apologize to Parliament. The opposition called for his resignation, but Johnson’s aides said he won’t go.
Johnson flew home early from the meeting of the United Nations in New York. After the court’s decision, Parliament will reconvene on Wednesday, and the coming days could hold even more shocks.
The question now is what the crisis means for Brexit. Johnson’s opponents began legal action because they feared his decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks ahead of Brexit day would rob them of the chance to pass laws to stop him from taking Britain out of the EU without a deal.
Johnson says he is determined to deliver Brexit by the end of next month, whatever the cost, even if it means leaving with no agreement in place to cushion the blow.
“The most important thing is we get on and deliver Brexit on Oct. 31, and clearly the claimants in this case are determined to frustrate that and to stop that,” Johnson said. “I think it would be very unfortunate if Parliament made that objective which the people want more difficult, but we will get on.”
But MPs moved quickly earlier this month, taking control of the House of Commons agenda and passing a new law designed to stop Johnson from carrying out his no-deal Brexit threat.
With Parliament now set to reconvene earlier than Johnson had planned, there will be many more potential opportunities for politicians to tie the prime minister’s hands and dictate the shape of Brexit.
Further court battles could lie ahead. Johnson’s team has threatened to ignore the new law that was designed to stop a no-deal divorce by forcing him to seek a Brexit delay by Oct. 19 if he is unable to reach agreement with the bloc. This would likely trigger another court challenge. Johnson’s aides are also braced for attempts in Parliament to pass laws potentially canceling Brexit altogether.
The fate of the U.K.’s split from the EU is far from certain.
In New York, the prime minister met with EU leaders in an attempt to persuade them to give ground so a deal can be done. Officials on both sides regard it as a make-or-break round of talks for the chances of getting a deal.
Yet the Supreme Court ruling showed Johnson’s weakness and may make the EU less likely to offer a compromise, a fact he is aware of. If Johnson decides to play hardball and fight on to deliver Brexit without a deal on Oct. 31, it is still not clear that his opponents in Parliament, or the courts, will be able to stop him.