Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Johnson will ask for Brexit delay, court papers say

  • Benjamin Mueller, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-10-05 11:12:34 BdST

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FILE PHOTO: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves his Downing Street office in London, Britain, October 3, 2019. REUTERS

After vowing for weeks that Britain would leave the European Union on Oct 31 with or without a deal easing the transition, the government said in documents released Friday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson would ask for another delay if he failed to secure an agreement by mid-October.

Parliament passed a measure in September obligating the prime minister to send a letter to Brussels asking to delay Brexit until the end of January if no deal has been reached by Oct 19, but Johnson has refused to state publicly that he would ask for an extension.

Johnson has also said that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit, and the commitment — revealed in court proceedings — did not necessarily spell the end of his backroom maneuvering to avoid extending the Brexit deadline. An extension would be the third such delay.

He stuck to his hard-line tone on Twitter on Friday, writing that the choices were “new deal or no deal - but no delay.”

The European Union has shown little sign a new agreement is near. On Friday, a spokesman said that member states have “agreed that the UK proposals do not provide a basis for concluding an agreement.” British negotiators will be given another chance, Monday, to explain their Brexit plan.

If no deal is reached, the prime minister would formally ask the European Union for a delay, as the law required, unnamed Downing Street officials told the BBC, but the government could still do “other things,” both publicly and privately, to foil an extension.

Johnson’s aides have suggested in the past that he could, for example, send a second letter contradicting the first, or vow to European officials privately that he has no intention of continuing to negotiate an orderly departure.

Those machinations could take center stage later this month, once the European Union offers a more definitive response to Johnson’s first proposal for the terms of Britain’s departure. So far, it seems doubtful that they will accept it.

But were Johnson to try sidestepping the law and completing a no-deal Brexit, analysts said he would almost certainly run into court challenges that could force him to beat a hasty retreat.

Whatever the outcome, the court documents were a rare public admission that Parliament has largely tied the government’s hands in forcing it to delay Brexit, absent a new deal.

Johnson has long pledged to yank Britain out of the bloc. As recently as Thursday, he said in the House of Commons, “We will be leaving on 31 October, deal or no deal.”

Of the law forcing him to delay Brexit past October, he told the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, “That option does not commend itself to me.”

Those bare-knuckled promises are part of Johnson’s strategy for a looming election. Trying to fend off pro-Brexit rivals to his right, Johnson is using whatever tools he has to fulfill his high-profile vow to complete Brexit by Oct 31, “come what may.”

Instead, he has tried to cast any obstacles in his path as the fault of anti-Brexit lawmakers in Parliament. Even if he is ultimately forced to ask for an extension, analysts said Johnson would want to do everything he could to make clear to voters that he was not delaying Brexit of his own volition.

But the court papers were a glimpse into the government’s weakened position.

Brexit opponents had mounted a legal action in a Scottish court to preemptively force Johnson to do as the law said and ask for an extension if necessary.

The British government has refused to release its submissions in the case. But Friday, Aidan O’Neill, a lawyer opposing the government, read out the government’s pledges in court, and Jolyon Maugham, another lawyer who helped bring the challenge, posted them on Twitter.

They said the prime minister had accepted that “he is subject to the public law principle that he cannot frustrate its purpose or the purpose of its provisions. Thus he cannot act so as to prevent the letter requesting the specified extension in the act from being sent.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company