Summer recess is over, and Britain’s Parliament reconvenes Tuesday to face a momentous decision about whether to intervene to try to prevent a possible “no-deal” exit from the European Union.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken steps to suspend Parliament during part of the period before the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline, giving legislators little time to try to rush through legislation designed to prevent a disorderly departure. They face a formidable challenge.
Labour Party officials are expected to seek an “emergency debate” so that an extension to the Brexit deadline can be discussed in the House of Commons. The plan is to introduce binding legislation that, if passed, would force the prime minister to seek an extension to the Oct. 31 deadline even though he has said he is determined to leave the EU on that date regardless of whether there is a deal with the bloc’s nations.
The role of House of Commons Speaker John Bercow will be important in determining when and how any debate unfolds. The speaker plays an impartial role in the British system, although Bercow last week criticized Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament for longer than usual before the Brexit deadline as a “constitutional outrage.” He has been an outspoken advocate for Parliament playing an active role in setting Brexit policy.
This is not usually a fast process. A bill introduced in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of Parliament, gets two “readings” — one with a debate — before it goes to a committee stage, during which every clause is discussed and amendments can be made.
It then goes back to the House of Commons for more debate and possibly more amendments, which can be made by any legislator, and then is voted on at the end of a “third reading.”
If the bill is supported, it goes to the upper House of Lords for a similar series of phases, with differing rules about when amendments can be offered. Parliament’s website makes clear that this process can be very slow, and is subject to filibuster tactics: “All suggested amendments have to be considered, if a member wishes, and members can discuss an issue for as long as they want.”
If the Lords have made amendments to the bill, it is then sent back to the Commons for further consideration. If the Lords haven’t made changes, the bill is sent to Queen Elizabeth II for “royal assent” and becomes law. The queen’s approval is seen as a formality and doesn’t have to be given in person.
The Prime Minister’s opinion
Johnson’s backers in Parliament can slow the legislative process down with amendments and with filibustering speeches that can go on for hours, in effect “playing out the clock” during the period before Parliament is suspended, which can begin as early as Sept. 9.
Parliament is set to reconvene shortly before the Brexit deadline, but those opposed to a “no-deal” departure say any legislation should be passed this week. Parliament normally doesn’t sit on Fridays or on weekends, but that could be changed given the current time pressure.
On another front, Johnson is threatening to expel fellow Conservative Party legislators who back efforts to extend the Brexit deadline.
The prime minister also has stopped short of formally committing the government to abiding by Parliament’s wishes if legislation is passed. Cabinet minister Michael Gove, who is playing a key role in Brexit preparations, said the government would wait and see what, if any, legislation is passed before deciding its response.
As things stand, Britain will leave the EU on Oct. 31 unless it seeks an extension and the other 27 EU nations approve. If Parliament instructs the government to request an extension but is ignored, it would set off a constitutional clash of major proportions.
Gregory Katz, The Associated Press