Boris Johnson was dubbed “the father of lies” and his government accused of playing “dishonest, dirty tricks” on the second day of a Supreme Court hearing into the prime minister’s decision to suspend parliament.
Lawyers acting for a cross-party group of more than 70 MPs and peers attacked Mr Johnson’s failure to provide a witness statement to the court and claimed his government “has shown itself unworthy of our trust”.
But government lawyers insisted the controversial five-week suspension was not “improper”, and claimed it was necessary to allow the government and civil service to prepare for the Queen’s Speech, which is due to take place on 14 October.
They told the court the prime minister has the legal power to prorogue parliament for as long as he sees fit, and that it is for parliament, not judges, to intervene to stop this.
Mr Johnson’s opponents, led by the cross-party group of MPs and anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, have sought to have the prorogation of parliament declared unlawful.They have argued that such a lengthy suspension was not needed to prepare for a Queen’s Speech, and claimed that the real reason for the move was to silence parliament and stop it interfering with Mr Johnson’s Brexit plans.
The court was told the prime minister’s motives could not be known for sure because he had refused to give a signed statement to the court.
Arguing for the cross-party group of MPs and peers, Aidan O’Neill QC claimed this was an intentional tactic by the government.
He said it was usually expected that the government would “engage solely in high politics as opposed to low, dishonesty, dirty tricks” but added: “I’m not sure we can assume that of this government given the attitude which has been taken publicly by its advisers and by the prime minister himself to the notion of the rule of law.”
In an extraordinary attack on Mr Johnson, Mr O’Neill branded the prime minister “the father of lies”.
He told the court: “We’ve got here the mother of parliaments being shut down by the father of lies. Rather than allowing lies to triumph, listen to the angels of your better nature and rule that this prorogation is unlawful, an abuse of power which has been entrusted to the government.
“This government has shown itself unworthy of our trust, as it uses the powers of its office in a manner that is corrosive of the constitution and destructive of the system of parliamentary, representative democracy upon which the union polity is founded. Enough is enough.”
He urged the judges: “Stand up for the truth, stand up for reason, stand up for unity and diversity, stand up for parliament, stand up for democracy by dismissing this government’s appeal and upholding a constitution governed by laws and not the passing whims of men.”
Speaking on behalf of the government earlier in the day, Sir James Eadie QC defended Mr Johnson’s decision not to provide a witness statement.
He said the government had made available an internal No 10 memo and a set of cabinet minutes that showed Mr Johnson had not been trying to “stymie” parliament when he asked the Queen to order the prorogation. Such claims were “untenable” and “unsustainable”, he said.
But in a sign of frustration at the lack of a statement from Mr Johnson, Lord Wilson, one of the 11 judges hearing the case, said it was not enough to have documents “floating around” without a signed affidavit.
He said: “Isn’t it odd that nobody has signed a witness statement to say, ‘This is true, these are the true reasons for what was done’?”
Much of the highly complex case centres on whether the courts have the right to rule on the prime minister’s use of his power to prorogue parliament.
Sir James told the court it was not for judges for intervene to rule against the prorogation when parliament itself had failed to do so. MPs “had plenty of opportunities” to pass a law overruling the suspension but opted not to, he said.
The power to prorogue parliament was, he said, “a well-established constitutional function, exercisable and to be exercised by the executive”.
But some of the judges appeared to express scepticism at that claim, with Lord Kerr pressing the QC on whether he was suggesting it would not be a matter for the courts even if a prime minister suspended parliament for as long as a year.
Sir James argued it was “impossible” for judges to decide how long prorogation should last, and claimed it was “not appropriate for the court to be in that territory”.
Speaking for the other side, Mr O’Neill said Mr Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament “had the intent and effect of preventing parliament, impeding parliament, from holding the government politically to account at a time when the government is taking decisions which will have constitutional and irreversible impacts on our country”.
With parliament suspended, the courts were the “only constitutional actor left standing” to hold the government to account, he said.
The barrister also revealed he had attempted to hand a legal petition directly to the Queen, driving 400 miles from his holiday in Devon to the monarch’s Balmoral residence in Scotland.
The court was told it was not clear how the government would respond if the Supreme Court ruled Mr Johnson’s advice recommending prorogation was unlawful.
Government lawyers again suggested the prime minister could attempt to prorogue parliament for a second time, but Sir James said he could not give more information because ministers’ response would depend on what the court says.
That did not satisfy the judges, and Lady Hale, the president of the court, asked the government to provide written confirmation of how it planned to proceed in this scenario.
The hearing will continue on Thursday when the court will hear a submission from former prime minister Sir John Major.