Boris Johnson has done the very thing he said he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than do: request an extension to article 50 and possibly delay Brexit.
The UK Prime Minister has done so kicking and screaming – all the while making clear who he believes is to blame for this delay: opposition lawmakers.
Having failed to get his new Brexit deal approved by Parliament on Saturday, Johnson was legally obliged to request the extension. His opponents in Parliament had previously passed legislation, referred to as the Benn Act, that instructed Johnson to send a letter to Brussels requesting the extension if no formal deal had been approved by 11 p.m. on Saturday.
And those same opponents sealed the PM’s fate, when they voted in favor of an amendment to Johnson’s deal by Oliver Letwin, which made meeting that deadline impossible.
The UK, in fact, sent three letters. A cover letter from Johnson’s top diplomat in Brussels explained that the PM was complying with the law. Second, a photocopy of the exact wording in the Benn act, unsigned by the PM. And finally, a personal letter from Johnson to all European Union leaders saying that he was still pressing ahead with his goal of leaving the EU on October 31 and that further delay would be corrosive.
He also hammered home that this was the will of Parliament, not the Prime Minister himself. “While it is open to the European Council to accede to the request mandated by Parliament or to offer an alternative extension period, I have made clear since becoming Prime Minister… that a further extension would damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners, and the relationship between us.”
It was a point he’d made hours earlier in a letter to every single UK lawmaker. The Prime Minister said: “I have made clear that I do not want more delay. European leaders have made clear they do not want more delay. It is to my regret that today the House voted for more delay.”
It is now up to the leaders of the other 27 EU member states to decide if that extension is granted, a process that is likely to take some days and may end up with the need for another EU summit. Every day that the EU sits on the extension request is a day that Johnson can spend trying to get his deal through Parliament.
Meanwhile Johnson’s opponents will go back to court, accusing him of a flagrant breach of the Benn Act. Johnson will likely face a court challenge over his disowning of the extension request. That could turn out to be a sideshow – more perilous for the Prime Minister will be the extension itself, should it be granted. Once no deal is firmly off the table, the forces against Johnson in Parliament could finally come together in a very dangerous way.
Johnson, it appears, is trying to turn Saturday’s defeat into victory. His repeated message that this was Parliament’s decision, not his, is not just for MPs in London or EU leaders to read. For months, Johnson has been painting a very clear picture to the public of him being a man fighting tooth and nail to get Brexit done by October 31, and opposition MPs as Brexit thieves, stealing Brexit from the people.
Observers would be forgiven for wondering if Johnson knew all along that he was going to have to delay Brexit and that this is all part of his people-versus-Parliament message that will become a central plank of the election that everyone in the nation thinks inevitable.
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Johnson’s claim to be working as hard as possible to get Brexit done gained credibility this week when he managed to get the EU to agree a new deal – something he’d been told was impossible. As early as Saturday afternoon, it seemed likely that he had the numbers to win in Parliament, or at least was close enough to have a decent crack.
Although this weekend looks to be a loss for the PM, MPs could well have handed him the easiest election campaign message in history. Whether being seen as a failure hurts his healthy poll lead remains to be seen. But team Johnson have developed a reputation for hard language and playing dirty.
Of course Johnson’s strategy could backfire. He’s had a pretty torrid time since entering Downing Street and this display over the letters could be seen as a petulant loser lashing out from a position of weakness.
Things could be about to get a lot more wild in Brexit land.