LONDON (REUTERS) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will send a letter to the European Union asking for a Brexit delay if no divorce deal has been reached by Oct 19, the government acknowledged for the first time on Friday.
With the clock ticking down to Britain’s departure date of Oct 31, Johnson has consistently said he will not ask for a Brexit extension, but also that he will not break a new law that forces him to request one if no withdrawal agreement deal has been agreed.
He has not explained the apparent contradiction in his comments and opponents say they believe he will seek some kind of legal escape route or try to pressure the EU into refusing to agree to an extension request.
On Wednesday, Johnson submitted new proposals to the EU that he hopes will lead to an agreement, although the EU has responded with scepticism saying more concessions are needed if a no-deal Brexit is to be avoided.
Just over a week after a British Supreme Court ruling that Johnson had suspended the parliament unlawfully and weeks before the deadline, anti-Brexit campaigners again turned to judges to try to ensure the exit will be delayed if no deal to smooth the transition has been agreed.
They filed two linked challenges to Johnson in Scotland’s senior courts, seeking an order forcing him to abide by the “Benn Act”. This was the law passed by parliament last month requiring Johnson to seek a Brexit delay if he has not agreed a withdrawal agreement in the next two weeks.
If he does not, they want the court to use its powers, not available to English judges, to write to EU leaders itself requesting an extension on his behalf.
While saying he will comply with the law, Johnson has said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask for any delay and that Britain will leave the EU “do or die” on Oct 31.
The legal challenge, fronted by tax lawyer Jo Maugham and Joanna Cherry, a lawmaker from the Scottish National Party, also says that if Johnson fails to comply with the Benn Act the courts could impose penalties “including fine and imprisonment”.
In submissions to the Scottish court read out by the campaigners’ lawyer, Aidan O’Neill, the government said Johnson accepted he was obliged to send a letter to the EU on Oct 19 asking for a delay if no deal had been struck and that if an extension was granted, Britain would also agree to it.
O’Neill said the submissions were “directly contrary to what the prime minister was saying to parliament yesterday”.
A spokesman for Johnson said he could not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.
However, shortly afterwards, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said on Twitter that a senior source in Johnson’s office had said they could still avoid any delay.
“The government will comply with the Benn Act, which only imposes a very specific narrow duty concerning Parliament’s letter requesting a delay,” she quoted the source as saying.
“The government is not prevented by Act from doing other things that cause no delay including other communications, private and public. People will have to wait to see how this is reconciled.
“The government is making its true position on delay known privately in Europe and this will become public soon.”
Scotland’s Outer House of the Court of Session will give its ruling on Monday on whether it will order Johnson to comply with the Benn Act, Maugham said.
IRISH BORDER ISSUE
Johnson’s new proposal is intended to offer arrangements for the post-Brexit border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
Despite the Benn Act, Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the EU remained concerned about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, which many businesses fear would have damaging economic repercussions for Britain and the EU.
“I think British politics is so unpredictable right now, that we can’t rely even on the law in Britain in this context,” he told RTE on Friday.
The legal challenge is the latest case that has seen judges called in to arbitrate over Brexit, with all the high-profile cases so far going against the government.
Brexit supporters have accused judges of overstepping their powers by getting involved in political matters.
While Johnson said he respected last week’s Supreme Court decision, he also said the judges were wrong.