Boris Johnson will write to the EU requesting a delay to Brexit if he cannot strike new withdrawal deal, court documents suggest.
A government legal submission to Scotland’s highest civil court makes clear that the prime minister will comply with the so-called Benn Act to block a no-deal Brexit on October 31.
Johnson has repeatedly said he would never delay Brexit and has refused to quell speculation that he may seek a loophole in the legislation to deliver his pledge to leave the EU “do or die” on Halloween.
But in an unprecedented admission to the Scottish court, the government made clear that “the prime minister accepts” that he “will send a letter in the form set out” by the Benn Act, requesting a delay to January 31 if he cannot pass a withdrawal deal by October 19.
Jolyon Maugham QC, one of the lawyers leading the legal action which aims to guarantee the PM’s compliance with the Benn Act, questioned whether Johnson’s pledge to leave on October 31, deal or no deal, could still hold.
Maugham told Sky News: “The prime minister’s playing a very odd game.
“It’s a very difficult game to understand because I think he told the House of Commons yesterday that we would leave come what may on October 31, and I do not understand how that statement can be reconciled with the promises that he’s made to the court today.
“There is no way to square that circle. And he is going to have to come clean either to parliament or the court.”
The government also conceded that if the EU agrees to the extension request, Johnson “is obliged immediately to notify” European Council President Donald Tusk “that the United Kingdom agrees to that extension”, and will follow procedures for Commons votes as set out by the Benn Act if Brussels proposes another date.
The government submission concludes by saying that the PM accepts “that he is subject to the public law principle that he cannot frustrate (the Benn act)’s 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.”
Downing Street refused to comment on the document.
But Steve Baker, chair of the Tory Brexiteer European Research Group, said he had been reassured that the UK would leave the EU on Halloween.
“A source confirms all this means is that government will obey the law,” Baker tweeted after the government’s submission to the court became public.
“It does not mean we will extend.
“It does not mean we will stay in the EU beyond October 31.
“We will leave.”
Baker later told HuffPost UK that no one in government had revealed the plan to circumvent the Benn Act to him, but that he had seen “glints in the eyes” of government insiders that indicate they do have a strategy.
“The combination of public statements and private conversations suggest the government believes it can obey the law and leave on time,” he said.
Asked if he would accept any extension request, Irish PM Leo Varadkar said during at trip to Denmark: “Brexit doesn’t end with the UK leaving, it’s just the next phase of negotiations. But if the UK were to request an extension, we would consider it. But most EU countries would only consider it for good reason. But an extension would be better than no deal.”
Best for Britain chief executive Naomi Smith said: “Despite claims that the government is going to ask for an Article 50 extension, we all know Boris Johnson cannot be trusted. He will say anything to help promote himself and his version of Brexit.
“His negotiations with Europe have been nothing short of pitiful, and he is using this all as a blame game in an effort to frame the EU.
“If the prime minister wants a real route out of this mess, he needs to obey the law, ask for an extension and then give the people a final say.”