For Americans used to seeing stories in which some clearly over-the-top action of Donald Trump ends up running into the wall of a federal courtroom, this story may sound familiar. On Thursday, the lord chief justice of Northern Ireland came back from his own summer vacation to determine whether he would grant an injunction to block Boris Johnson’s announced suspension of Parliament. What would happen if the justice decided to suspend the suspension? No one knows. Because the map for all this has been left far, far, far back in the dust. In any case, the justice has ordered all parties to show up in court on Friday to make their arguments. For extra fun, there are cases going before lord chief justices in England and Scotland as well. What happens if they do not all rule in the same way? I confess to perfect ignorance.
As The Guardian reports, the basis of all these cases isn’t just that Johnson overstepped in telling the queen to prorogue Parliament for more than a month, but that Johnson actively misled the queen. That was the charge leveled against him after the U.K. defense minister was caught admitting that the reason that Johnson wanted things placed on ice until right before Brexit hits is that he knew he couldn’t collect a majority of votes if he was challenged. In other words, a member of Johnson’s own Cabinet seems to be admitting that, were it not for Johnson’s running to the queen, his government would not last long enough to see in the agreement-free Brexit that a small minority seems to ardently desire.
Meanwhile, the leading member of the Conservative Party in Scotland has climbed on stage to confirm that she’s out. She’s not alone. A member of Johnson’s Cabinet has also stepped down and, if the ugly parallels between Johnson’s version of the U.K. and Donald Trump’s reign over the U.S. were not already strong enough, members of the government have cranked up the “fake news” sirens to declare that the protests over suspending government for five weeks and leaving less than two weeks to debate crashing out of the European Union are a “candyfloss of outrage” that is “almost entirely confected.” That’s “fake” in British.
At this point, it’s not actually clear that there is anything that can be done other than to ride Johnson’s lie-spattered bus to the bottom. The BBC notes that the deal that Theresa May tried to create is dead beyond revival, Johnson has not even tried to offer a deal, and MPs have no way to cut Johnson out of any negotiations. However, there is an arcane phrase that seems likely to become much better known between now and Halloween: Keep an eye, and an ear, out for “SO24.”
That reference isn’t just indecipherable to Americans; it’s also difficult to explain even in the U.K. It refers to Standing Order 24, which is the rule that allows MPs to demand a debate on urgent matters.
While SO24 can definitely deliver some time before the microphones, it rarely includes more than that—a chance to talk. But it could. Much of what happens if SO24 is invoked is in the hands of the speaker of the House of Commons. If everyone is in agreement, a declaration of the special order could be swiftly followed by an amendment extending the date of Brexit. That amendment could then be very quickly turned into legislation (as in, it would have to be written in advance) and pushed through multiple stages in both houses of Parliament. This has happened before … but everything, everything, has to go right to make it work, and it would be extraordinarily hard to pull off if Johnson fought against the effort. All it takes is one windy member in the House of Lords to talk long enough to run out the clock.
Still, don’t be surprised if MPs try to pull this trick almost immediately when Parliament sits next week for the brief period that’s scheduled before the period of suspension.
This would be a good time to dig through World War II memorabilia and find all those posters that contain some slogan about fortitude.