LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of the British parliament was unlawful, a court ruled on Wednesday, prompting immediate calls for lawmakers to return to work as the government and parliament battle over the future of Brexit.
Scotland’s highest court of appeal ruled against Johnson’s decision to prorogue, or suspend, parliament from Monday until Oct. 14 — a blow for the government as it seeks to leave the European Union on Oct. 31 with or without a deal.
With seven weeks to go, the government and parliament are locked in conflict over the future of Brexit, with possible outcomes ranging from leaving without a deal to another referendum that could cancel the divorce.
“We are calling for parliament to be recalled immediately,” said Scottish National Party lawmaker Joanna Cherry, who led the legal challenge, after Scotland’s Court of Session ruled the prorogation should be annulled.
“You cannot break the law with impunity, Boris Johnson.”
The government will appeal against the ruling to the Supreme Court, the United Kingdom’s highest judicial body, and an official said Johnson believed parliament remained suspended pending a decision by that court.
In a Facebook broadcast Johnson read out a submitted question from a voter, which said he was running an authoritarian government and asked “Why is home-grown authoritarianism better than EU rule?”
In answer, he said: “I must respectfully disagree with you in your characterization of this government. What we are trying to do is implement the result of the 2016 referendum.”
Still, a group of opposition lawmakers gathered outside the 800-year-old Palace of Westminster demanding its recall.
Johnson announced on Aug. 28 that parliament would be prorogued, saying the government wanted the suspension so it could then launch a new legislative agenda.
Opponents said the real reason was to shut down debate and challenges to his Brexit plans. The court was shown documents that showed Johnson was considering prorogation weeks before he formally asked Queen Elizabeth to suspend the legislature.
Buckingham Palace declined to comment on the ruling, saying it was a matter for the government.
Dominic Grieve, one of 21 Brexit rebels thrown out of Johnson’s Conservative Party last week, said that if Johnson had misled the queen, he should resign.
Johnson, who was a figurehead for the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, when 52 percent of voters backed Brexit, has rejected opposition complaints that he was undemocratically denying parliament the right to debate Brexit.
Johnson’s bid to quit the bloc “do or die” on Oct. 31 has hit the buffers: parliament has ordered him to delay Brexit until 2020 unless he strikes a deal, while a new Brexit Party is threatening to poach Conservative voters.
After three years of Brexit crisis, British politics is in turmoil, with the prime minister blocked by parliament and an election or even a second referendum on the cards.
In an excoriating judgment, the Scottish judges — who are part of the United Kingdom’s legal system — ruled that the principal reason for parliament’s suspension was to stymie lawmakers and allow Johnson to pursue a no-deal Brexit policy.
“This was an egregious case of a clear failure to comply with generally accepted standards of behaviour of public authorities,” concluded one judge, Philip Brodie, according to a summary of the court verdict.
Judge James Drummond Young had determined that “the only inference that could be drawn was that the UK government and the Prime Minister wished to restrict Parliament”, it added.
Last week, the High Court of England and Wales rejected a similar challenge by campaigners, saying it was a political not a judicial matter.
The 2016 Brexit referendum showed a United Kingdom divided about much more than the EU, and has given rise to soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, empire and modern Britishness.
It has also triggered civil war inside both of Britain’s main political parties as dozens of lawmakers put what they see as the United Kingdom’s fate above that of party loyalty.
The divisions in the opposition Labour Party over Brexit were on display on Wednesday, when its deputy leader, Tom Watson, said he supported pressing for a second referendum before an early national election.
His argument, which puts him at odds with party leader Jeremy Corbyn, is that an election might fail to resolve the deadlock over Brexit. Corbyn says Labour would offer the people a second referendum on a credible option to leave against remaining in the EU after an election.
“It’s Tom’s view - I don’t accept it and I don’t agree with it,” Corbyn said. “Our priority is to get a general election.”
Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party which could take votes away from both main parties, offered Johnson an election pact on Wednesday but said that unless there was a clean break with the EU, the Conservatives would take a “real kicking” in any election and could not win a majority.
“If we go beyond the 31st of October and we are still a member of the European Union - which looks increasingly likely - then a lot of votes will shift from the Conservative Party to the Brexit Party,” Farage told reporters.
Johnson ruled out a pact with Farage.
Additional reporting by Kate Holton, Elizabeth Piper, William James and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Catherine Evans and Giles Elgood