Brexit and suspending parliament: What just happened?

House of Commons (file photo - 1994)

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The House of Commons could sit empty for five weeks if the extended suspension goes through

In a dramatic move on Wednesday morning, Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson set in motion the suspension of the UK parliament – which means MPs have much less time to debate Brexit, the process of the UK leaving the European Union.

The UK parliament is to be suspended for five weeks, ahead of 31 October, when the UK is due to leave the EU.

That’s just nine weeks away.

Politicians on both sides of the Brexit debate are calling it a coup.

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Media captionWhat does proroguing Parliament mean?

Mr Johnson wants to start a new parliamentary session, with a fresh programme, from 14 October. Instead of a normal three-week autumn recess, parliament will now wrap up on 10 September.

With so little time, MPs would find it difficult to stop the UK leaving the EU without a deal.

Wait, what just happened?

Parliament always stops work for a few weeks in the autumn. But this isn’t a normal recess: Mr Johnson is cutting short the current parliamentary session at a critical time.

The UK was originally scheduled to leave the EU on 29 March. After parliament rejected the deal negotiated with the EU three times, that deadline was extended. Departure day is now 31 October.

Mr Johnson – who was one of the key figures in the Leave campaign – has promised to complete Brexit, “do or die” – with or without a deal.

However, most opposition members of parliament (MPs) – and many from the governing Conservative Party – don’t want to leave the EU without a deal. They fear it would damage the British economy, putting up prices and limiting access to the UK’s biggest market.

They’ve threatened to bring legislation ruling out a no-deal Brexit. Failing that, they could also call a vote of no confidence in the government.

Is it legal to suspend parliament?

Yes. It’s what normally happens between the end of one session and the beginning of the next. However, the circumstances are unusual.

A legal challenge would be difficult, since the government isn’t breaking any law. It’s just using parliamentary procedure, as Mr Johnson tries to fulfil his campaign promise to get the UK out of the EU.

MPs could either go along with the suspension, with the risk of a no-deal Brexit, or they could trigger an election with a vote of no confidence in the government.

Speaker of Parliament John Bercow has called the suspension a “constitutional outrage” designed to prevent MPs from debating Brexit.

Doesn’t the Queen get a say?

She does, but it’s limited. Technically, the government has to ask her for permission to suspend parliament.

This is normally a formality: the Queen keeps out of politics. If she refused the government’s request, that would be unprecedented.

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PA Media

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The Queen has always kept herself out of frontline politics

What happens next?

Good question.

Parliament will go back to work next Tuesday 3 September, but will then go into recess.

If Mr Johnson gets his way, parliament returns on 14 October, two and a half weeks before the UK leaves the EU.

However, if MPs pass a vote of no confidence before 10 September, there could be a general election in October.

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Your guide to Brexit jargon

If there’s an election, will Brexit still happen?

That depends. If the Conservatives win, then yes. They’re ahead in the opinion polls, at about 31% last week, after Mr Johnson took over from the previous prime minister, Theresa May, in July.

The main opposition Labour Party is trailing by 10 to 12 points, on about 21%. Labour is divided between traditional working-class areas, which tend to support Brexit, and voters in the cities, who are more in favour of remaining in the EU.

But a Conservative win is not necessarily in the bag. Other parties, including the centre-left Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists, are all staunchly opposed to Brexit on any terms.

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Mr Johnson is putting those MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit on the spot

And then there’s the Brexit Party, under Nigel Farage, which wants the UK out of the EU at any price.

The fluid political situation and tight opinion polls make it difficult to say who might get a majority.

This makes any election difficult to predict. Just ask Mrs May: she called an early election in 2017 but returned with a reduced majority, dependent on 10 MPs from Northern Ireland.

As a result, she had to agree to a deal which would keep the UK aligned with EU rules for longer than Brexit supporters would accept.

And so here we are.

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