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British Prime Minister Johnson Suffers A Big Brexit Defeat In Court


Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the U.K., has lost big votes again and again in Parliament. Now he has also suffered a huge defeat in court. The U.K. Supreme Court has ruled against the prime minister. Johnson, you may recall, suspended Parliament for five weeks in what was seen as an effort to limit debate on Brexit. That is the act the court has now found to be illegal. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in the English seaside city of Brighton. Hi there, Frank.


INSKEEP: And we'll mention that you are at a conference of the opposition party, the Labour Party. We'll be hearing their response to this. But first, the ruling - why would this be illegal?

LANGFITT: Well, what the court basically said is it concluded that the decision by Boris Johnson was unlawful because, effectively, it had the effect of frustrating Parliament and its constitutional functions but had no reasonable justification. Now, you remember Boris Johnson, back a number of weeks ago, said, well, he needed extra time to set up his agenda, to announce it and bring it to Parliament in the middle of October. And basically, the court did not buy that explanation and said that this was unlawful.

And I want to say, it was 11 justices. They took this very, very seriously. And it was a unanimous decision. So it's a really big defeat. It's very embarrassing for the prime minister.

INSKEEP: Particularly since his opponents had said he was undermining democracy by shoving the Parliament out of the way at this vital moment.


INSKEEP: But what is the practical and political effect of the court ruling?

LANGFITT: Well, it's interesting. I think what the court said today is that - (laughter) this is a remarkable finding. It said Parliament actually was never prorogued, that none of this was legitimate and that it's now up for Parliament, the speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord speaker to decide when they want to bring back Parliament, but they can do so immediately if they wish. And so exactly when this will happen, we don't know yet. This is just breaking news. But we'll have to see how they respond and then how they use that time.

Now, they've already voted, as we talked about before, to block the prime minister from pulling the United Kingdom out of the EU with no deal, with no withdrawal agreement with Brussels. But we can expect - if Parliament does come back very soon, you can expect them to really batter the prime minister even more. And as you pointed out in the beginning, he has not won a single vote since he came into office in July.

INSKEEP: Yeah. All of this happening with a deadline approaching - October 31, if I'm not mistaken - for Britain to leave...

LANGFITT: You got it.

INSKEEP: ...The European Union with or without a deal, although they've now passed a law saying they don't want to do it without a deal. As this ruling comes out, we mentioned you're at this Labour Party convention in Brighton. They're the opposition party. What are they saying?

LANGFITT: They're euphoric. Right after the ruling, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, came out on the stage here and just - he said Parliament should come back immediately, and he criticized Johnson, as he has before, and said there should be - there should absolutely not be a no-deal Brexit. So for the Labour Party, it's at the center of attention right now. It's a very political season here in September. And it's great for them. It's great for their profile and certainly a big boost for Jeremy Corbyn, who wants to, of course, unseat Boris Johnson, as we expect an election probably sometime in November or early December here.

INSKEEP: Although, I'm just trying to keep this straight - the Labour Party has sort of sat on the fence as to whether it's for Brexit or against Brexit.

LANGFITT: They have.

INSKEEP: The Parliament itself has been very strong in voting no, again and again, to Boris Johnson, but they also voted no, again and again, when Theresa May...


INSKEEP: ...His predecessor, tried to get some kind of Brexit deal done. So the Parliament is back. They can come back whenever they want to. But do they actually know what they want to do?

LANGFITT: I'm not sure. All they know for now is they know that they don't want - they definitely don't want a no-deal Brexit. What's interesting with Labour, especially as they - as we do expect a general election here, is Labour yesterday had a vote in which they essentially did not take a position on Brexit. You know, the Labour Party is as divided as much of the nation. And what they said is they'd like to take - basically, negotiate a new Brexit deal. Maybe take it to a - then take it to referendum with an option to stay in the EU. Of course, that's going to be hard to articulate in a race.

And I was talking to a guy named Matt Gaffer (ph). He's a delegate. And he's worried about the impact at the ballot box. This is what he said.

MATT GAFFER: For Labour to still remain on the fence and not to publicly come out one way or the other, I think it's going to hurt us.

LANGFITT: And so what's going to be really interesting is to see how Labour fares without taking a very strong position because all the other parties are. And we'll find out soon in the next month or two - next two, three months - who's going to be prime minister, who's going to run the U.K. government.

INSKEEP: Frank, thanks.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.