Boris Johnson will seek an extension to Article 50 if there is no Brexit deal by 19 October, documents read out in court today have revealed. This contradicts the Prime Minister’s assertion that he would rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than delay Britain leaving to after the current deadline of 31 October. So what’s going on?
The revelation comes in the government’s written case for a hearing on whether the Prime Minister will be in contempt of court if he doesn’t send the letter to the European Union asking for the extension which he is mandated to do by the Benn Act. The document says that ‘he cannot act so as to prevent the letter requesting the specified extension in the Act from being sent.’ Number 10 is refusing to comment, while European Research Group chair Steve Baker has insisted that he has been told by a source that it still doesn’t mean there will be an extension.
Of course, there is one way that this could all be true: there is a deal agreed by 19 October. But that looks highly unlikely, partly as a result of the Benn Act, which has removed the sense of urgency among European leaders. The Benn Act, of course, wouldn’t have come about had Johnson not prorogued parliament in the first place, but the Prime Minister is hoping that the public will miss this detail when choosing who to blame for Brexit being delayed.
Another possibility is that the Prime Minister does send the extension letter, but that lawyers have indeed found the loophole which means an extension won’t ever end up happening. This could include the ‘second letter’ theory whereby he does indeed send the formal request, but makes clear in a separate communication that he doesn’t want the extension and will fight it.
Or, Johnson has resigned himself to having to seek an extension, and believes he can survive it politically precisely because he seems to be winning the blame game. He will disappoint the European Research Group in the full knowledge that they will still campaign for him as the only real hope of getting Brexit done, though the extension letter will be a pretty potent prop in Nigel Farage’s hands come election time. Whatever happens, it seems that it’s not just the Prime Minister’s current opponents who are going to be very angry in the next few weeks.