Boris Johnson shut down parliament in the early hours of Tuesday morning following his sixth parliamentary defeat in six days, as MPs voted to block a snap election and to force the publication of No 10’s secret preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
The prime minister moved to stop parliament sitting for five weeks and repeatedly refused to countenance any delay to leaving the EU, even though the bill to prevent a no-deal Brexit on 31 October passed into law on Monday and MPs refused him a general election before that date.
Johnson was also defiant about parliament’s vote by 311 to 302 for him to publish Operation Yellowhammer documents detailing the government’s no-deal Brexit plans, after a leaked version from early August warned of possible food and medicine shortages.
The motion, brought by former Tory MP Dominic Grieve, also directed Johnson to disclose messages relating to the suspension of parliament sent by his senior adviser, Dominic Cummings and various other aides on WhatsApp, Facebook, other social media and both their personal and professional phones. Grieve said he had information from public officials that such correspondence contained a “scandal”.
But Downing Street sources suggested Johnson’s advisers would resort to legal action rather than hand over their communications. Any refusal to comply could put them and the government in contempt of parliament.
Johnson’s options then narrowed further on Monday afternoon, as parliament’s bill to prevent a no-deal Brexit on 31 October received royal assent and passed into law.
He then launched his second attempt to get parliament to back a general election in order to get a mandate to leave the EU by 31 October, accusing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of “preposterous cowardice” for refusing to support one. However, Corbyn said Johnson could not be allowed to dictate the terms of an election before a no deal Brexit is taken off the table.
Only 293 MPs voted to go to the polls, which did not meet the two-thirds threshold of MPs required under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The loss of the vote means there cannot now be an election until mid-November at the earliest, given parliament’s suspension.
In a further setback for No 10, John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, announced he would stand down on 31 October if there was no election before then. This means his immediate successor is likely to be chosen by the current parliament, in which there is no majority for a no-deal Brexit. It also confirms Bercow will still be in post during the crucial fortnight when parliament returns from prorogation in mid October.
Bercow, who received a stream of tributes from Labour and other opposition MPs, has been instrumental in empowering backbenchers to hold the executive to account over its Brexit policy and to pass the legislation preventing the UK’s departure from the EU without a deal.
Minutes after announcing he would step down after 10 years in the role, Bercow said he was allowing Grieve, who is a former attorney general, and Corbyn to move humble addresses putting Johnson under pressure. The device was previously used by MPs to make Theresa May publish the government’s legal advice on Brexit.
Corbyn’s address was designed to force Johnson to say that he would abide by the rule of law, amid suggestions that the prime minister could try to get around legislation mandating him to request a three-month delay to Brexit if there is no deal in place by 19 October.
Johnson’s official spokesman insisted on Monday that he would abide by the rule of law but, at the same time, the prime minister has said he would rather “die in a ditch” than ask for an extension to article 50. Johnson later told the Commons repeatedly: “I will not ask for another delay.”
Following the defeats, several Tory MPs said they believed Johnson was trying to find a way to bring back some of the 21 Conservatives from whom he removed the whip for defying his Brexit policy last week.
The aim of the Grieve motion was to prove that Johnson and his administration had misled MPs with their claim that the move to shut down parliament for five weeks was not to frustrate debate over Brexit. Grieve said he had asked for the information relating to prorogation because public officials had informed him that “they believed the handling of this matter smacked of scandal”.
“I can only say that I believe those sources to be reliable and also in my experience it is extraordinarily unusual that I should get such approaches with individuals expressing their disquiet about the handling of this matter,” he said.
However, senior government aides suggested No 10 would refuse to comply with parliament’s demands for their correspondence, potentially putting Johnson and senior members of his administration in contempt of parliament and creating a fresh clash between the executive and MPs.
Cummings has already been found in contempt of parliament once before after failing to appear before a select committee investigating fake news. One government source said the vote was “an abuse of parliamentary procedure and would never have been allowed under an impartial speaker”.
“If MPs want to seize the private texts of advisers to their friends, families, colleagues and journalists then they can speak to people’s lawyers,” they said.
A Downing Street spokesman said the scope of information requested was “disproportionate and unprecedented”.
“The government is committed to sharing appropriate information with parliament, but we must balance this obligation with the broader public interest, our legal duties and the assurance that ministers can receive full and frank advice that will remain confidential. The scope of the information requested in the [Grieve] humble address is disproportionate and unprecedented,” the spokesman said.
However, Bercow said the “government must comply with the humble address … that is the reality”, even in a period of prorogation.
According to memos from Downing Street read out in a Scottish court last week, Johnson had secretly decided to suspend parliament nearly two weeks before asking the Queen to do so. The court in Edinburgh later ruled that the move was legal, saying it was not a matter for the courts to decide.
Johnson had until Thursday to prorogue parliament under the terms of his request to the Queen, but he moved to do so early after suffering the two Commons defeats. The government suspended sitting in the House of Commons and House of Lords until 14 October – a move condemned by opposition parties and anti-no-deal Tories.
Criticising the prorogation, Corbyn, said it was “disgraceful” and accused Johnson of wanting to run away from questions.
Speaking at the Trades Union Congress on Tuesday, the Labour leader is expected to stress that he will not allow Johnson to dictate the terms of a forthcoming general election, warning that “no one can trust the word of a prime minister who is threatening to break the law to force through no deal”.
“Our priority is, first, to stop no deal, and then to trigger a general election,” Corbyn will say, after Labour refused to back Johnson’s demand for an election in mid-October, while a no-deal exit is still possible at the end of that month.
“Amber Rudd’s resignation confirmed that the government is not serious about trying to get a deal in Brussels. As the prime minister’s top adviser reportedly said, the negotiations are ‘a sham.’
“No one can trust the word of a prime minister who is threatening to break the law to force through no deal. So a general election is coming. But we won’t allow Johnson to dictate the terms.”
With an election expected within months, Johnson has embarked on a series of voter-friendly policies. He was expected to make an announcement promising around 30 new free schools on Tuesday.