A former British Prime Minister has joined a legal effort to prevent the current leader from suspending the UK Parliament in the runup to Brexit, an extraordinary development in a battle that has already turned precedent on its head.
John Major, who was Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997, announced that he intends to join the legal action brought by anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, who wants to stop his successor Boris Johnson from closing down Parliament for five weeks.
Major said he was keen to provide assistance to the court from the perspective of a former prime minister. The move was all the more striking, given that Major and Johnson are members of the same political party.
Johnson is accused of suspending Parliament in order to limit the time for his opponents to legislate against a no-deal Brexit. The Prime Minister insists the suspension is constitutional, as it provides for a new session of Parliament to begin, with a new legislative agenda.
In a TV interview on Friday, Johnson warned his opponents that EU leaders would be less likely to offer him the deal he seeks on Brexit if they believed that lawmakers would remove the threat of Britain leaving without a deal.
“If they think Brexit can be blocked anyway, they are not going to give us the deal we need. So my anxiety is that stuff going on in Parliament can actually undermine the UK’s negotiating position,” Johnson told Sky News.
Major’s announcement came on a day when opposition to Johnson’s plan was crystalizing. A Scottish judge brought forward a full hearing in a case brought by more than 70 anti-Brexit lawmakers to next Tuesday. While he declined their demand for an immediate court order blocking the suspension of Parliament, Lord Doherty said it was in the interests of justice that the case be heard swiftly.
In a separate case brought in Northern Ireland, the chief justice said a hearing would also be held on Tuesday. The high court in London said a hearing in the Miller-Major case would take place on Thursday. The suspension of Parliament is due to begin on September 9.
Parliamentary efforts to block the move will be unveiled when lawmakers from their summer recess on Tuesday.
Before then, widespread public protests are expected. The left-wing campaign group Momentum has called on people to block roads and bridges in 10 major UK cities at the weekend.
“This is an establishment coup by a tiny, privileged elite who have been eroding our democracy for decades,” Momentum’s National Coordinator, Laura Parker said in a statement. “Real power doesn’t sit with the Queen or in Parliament. It’s with us, the people – and that’s why we need to take action.”
“We’re expecting tens of thousands of us people to come against Johnson closing the doors on democracy. Our message to Johnson is this: If you steal our democracy, we’ll shut down the streets,” she added.
The last time a UK Prime Minister was accused of suspending Parliament in for his own political interests was Major himself in 1997.
Then, Parliament was shut for just under three weeks before it was formally dissolved ahead of the 1997 general election. Opposition parties at that time criticized the decision because it meant that the publication of a report into alleged “cash for access” could not be discussed in Parliament.
Commentators do not give any of the current legal moves much chance of success. But the legal team behind the Miller-Major action scored a landmark victory at the UK’s Supreme Court in 2016, when judges ruled that the official Brexit process could not be triggered without the approval of Parliament.
Richard Greene contributed to this article.