A Brief Guide To Boris Johnson's Rather Confusing Friday

As Brexit negotiations continue, the PM's plan becomes less clear.

On Friday afternoon as Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU rumbled on, a perplexed-sounding barrister told Sky News that Boris Johnson was playing “a very odd game”.

Jolyon Maugham QC was questioning just how the PM could stand by his pledge to leave on October 31 “do or die”, deal or no-deal, when his lawyers had just told a court that he would comply with the law – which makes a no-deal illegal.

As Friday wore on, the situation just got murkier, as the EU made a deal even less likely and Johnson doubled down and insisted he will not delay Brexit.

So what’s actually going on?

OK, deep breath...

Johnson’s desire to leave the EU on October 31 is hamstrung by last month’s passing of the so-called Benn Act which makes it illegal for the PM to take us out of the EU without a deal.

This legislation requires him to request a further extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process if he cannot get a new agreement by October 19.

Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson gives a closing speech at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester, Britain, October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson gives a closing speech at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester, Britain, October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Henry Nicholls / Reuters

And his lawyers said he would comply, right?

Right. Just today a government legal submission to Scotland’s highest civil court made clear the PM will comply with the law to block a no-deal Brexit on October 31.

The legal action – led by businessman Vince Dale, SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC and Jolyon Maugham QC – asked the court to require Johnson to seek an extension to avoid leaving the EU without a deal.

The unprecedented admission to the Scottish court said “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.

What has the EU said?

Late on Friday evening European Union member states agreed the government’s new Brexit proposals “do not provide a basis for concluding an agreement”.

A European Commission spokesman said discussions between the two sides would not take place this weekend but the UK will be given “another opportunity to present its proposals in detail” on Monday.

But the clock is ticking and October 19 is just two weeks away.

Sounds like the PM is going to have to ask for a delay...

Yes, it does but cast your minds back to last month when Johnson said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask for a delay.

So he’s changed his mind?

Apparently not – on Friday evening the PM tweeted to say the options facing the country were his proposed new Brexit deal or leaving without an agreement, “but no delay”.

Sorry, I’m confused

Don’t worry, so are the best of us, which brings us back to what Mr Maugham said earlier in the day as it is still relevant.

He said: “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.”

How can he square that circle?

This isn’t clear at the moment but last in a speech last week, former prime minister Sir John Major said Johnson could use “political chicanery” and act “in flagrant defiance of parliament”.

Major said a legal mechanism called an Order of Council could be used to suspend the law prohibiting a no-deal Brexit until after October 31, by which time it would be redundant as the UK would have already left the EU.

He said doing so would be something “that no-one should ever forgive or forget.”

There are other potential options – he could also veto an extension or ask another member state to veto on his behalf.

And let’s not forget, it’s already been proven Johnson is not above dabbling in a little political chicanery – last week the Supreme Court ruled that he had acted unlawfully when he prorogued parliament.

OK, so what happens next?

Brexit talks with Brussels on Johnson’s plan to replace the backstop could continue over the weekend.

Brussels said that “every day counts” as the clock ticks down to a crunch summit of EU leaders on October 17-18 and Downing Street said “we are ready to talk at any point, including over the weekend”.

Ireland’s deputy leader struck a more optimistic tone, denying it was “mission impossible” to reach a deal before the October 31 deadline.

The PM is expected to embark on a tour of European capitals for face-to-face talks next week as well as continuing to speak by phone to counterparts.

But unless he can produce something acceptable to the EU then a deal is unlikely to be reached and then, we’ll find out just how Johnson plans to square that circle...