We keep having to say this about Brexit – we haven’t seen anything like this before.
The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom has ruled that the government shut down parliament illegally, just weeks away from the final Brexit deadline.
This is a huge political and personal blow for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
But what does this all mean? Behind all the jargon, it’s about a showdown between the parliament and the prime minister, with a ticking clock in play.
Here’s what happened.
This is about the impending Brexit deadline on 31 October.
Prime Minister Johnson has vowed the UK will leave the EU on that day – even if there is no deal with the EU about how it will work.
But many elected representatives think a no-deal Brexit must be stopped at all costs.
So on 28 August, when Mr Johnson announced parliament would be suspended until mid-October, a huge row broke out.
Rivals claimed he was trying to stop parliament from opposing him.
Now, the Supreme Court decided the prime minister acted illegally – a ruling that challenges Britain’s unwritten constitution and the entire balance of power.
How do you close down a parliament?
The Supreme Court made clear it wasn’t ruling on Brexit – but simply deciding if the prime minister could lawfully “prorogue” Parliament – a fancy word for suspending it.
It’s not an unusual move: new prime ministers usually do that to end one session of parliament and start another, with a new legislative programme. In recent decades, it’s usually lasted a week.
But Boris Johnson said the UK will leave the EU on 31 October no matter what – even if the controversial deal with the EU hasn’t been agreed. That’s hugely controversial, with members of parliament (MPs) both in and out of his party worried that it would cause economic chaos.
After the summer break, there were just two months until the deadline – and then Mr Johnson suspended parliament for an unusually long five weeks, until 14 October.
What were the consequences?
Inside parliament, many of his own party members rebelled against him. More than 20 were expelled from the party. Some jumped ship to rivals. The prime minister’s party lost its governing majority. Protests took place in the streets outside.
But in the end, parliament closed, because the prime minister had asked the Queen to do so. That was within the law.
Or so everyone thought.
Legal challenges were filed arguing that the prime minister was trying to silence parliament for his own political gain – and that the whole thing was a ruse.
The problem was that one court in England said the suspension was legal – but another in Scotland said the prime minister had effectively misled the Queen about the whole affair, and was trying to stop parliament holding his government to account.
And so the case landed in the Supreme Court.
What happened in court?
Part of the problem is that the UK doesn’t have a written constitution like, say, the US or most other modern democracies. Instead, its constitution is based on hundreds of years of law and convention – which can be difficult to interpret.
A group of 70 Scottish members of parliament (MPs), a vocal campaigner over Brexit, and a former prime minister were all arguing against the government.
There was plenty of colourful language.
The lawyer for the Scottish group of MPs told the court it was about the “mother of parliaments closed down by the father of lies” and warned the judges not to trust government documents.
The government’s lawyer told the judges that interfering would be “forbidden territory”. He warned them they would be walking into an “ill-defined minefield”.
In the end, the Supreme Court decided against the government – that the suspension was designed to “prevent or frustrate” parliament carrying out its duties, and that it has no effect.
What happens next?
Because the suspension was ruled unlawful, parliament is technically still in session, as if the whole thing had never happened. The decision from 11 judges was unanimous.
Parliament could be reconvened straight away.
In its summary, the court said that how that happens is up to the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, and his counterpart in the House of Lords.
But when it comes to Brexit, there’s a time limit.
As it stands, the prime minister still maintains that he will take the UK out of the EU on 31 October – despite the fact that in the small amount of time they were in session, the parliament passed a law requiring him to ask for yet another extension.
That disagreement could lead to another political crisis, or another election. Or the EU might not agree to an extension even if asked.
And now, more than three years after the Brexit vote, there are just 37 days left to sort it all out.
Brexit: What just happened in the UK Supreme Court? – BBC News