LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s options are narrowing to deliver on his promise to lead Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31, with or without an exit deal to soften the impact of the split.
Seeking to avoid a no-deal exit, parliament has passed a law compelling Johnson to ask Brussels to postpone the departure until Jan. 31 if no deal has been reached by Oct. 19 or if parliament has not approved leaving without a deal by then.
Johnson, who took office in July, says he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask for what would be the country’s third Brexit delay.
The prime minister has tried twice to call an early election in the hope of winning a majority that would allow him to leave without a deal if necessary, but the request has twice been rejected by parliament.
So, what may Johnson’s next move be?
Johnson’s stated aim is to persuade the EU to give him a new deal at a summit on Oct. 17-18. If he is able to secure new terms and then win approval from parliament for the exit package, Britain can leave on Oct. 31 with a deal.
Ministers have said they will respect the law that was passed by parliament, but also that they want to “test to the limit” exactly what it requires.
The law states Johnson should write to the EU asking for an extension to the negotiations unless he either strikes a new Brexit deal that parliament approves, or gets parliament’s approval to leave without a deal.
Given Johnson has explicitly ruled out requesting a delay himself, his opponents in parliament are worried he might simply choose to ignore the law and refuse to send the letter.
This would likely move the Brexit battle to the courts and, with no real precedent for such a situation, the outcome and how long it might take to reach one are highly uncertain.
The law, which came into force on Monday, specifies the exact wording of the letter that Johnson has to send to the EU, but it does not exclude the possibility of sending a second letter setting out a different position.
The Daily Telegraph reported that this was one option under consideration by Johnson’s team.
Any such move would also likely be challenged in the courts. Jonathan Sumption, a former senior judge, told BBC radio that such a letter would not be legal.
Any EU decision to grant a Brexit extension would require agreement from all members.
While other EU members are unhappy at the need for another delay, they are unlikely to veto any request and be held responsible for a no-deal exit that would damage their own economies as well as Britain’s.
They are, however, likely to attach conditions to any delay to make sure that it does not cause several further months of wrangling without resolution in the British parliament. They could also propose a different length of delay.
Lawmakers in parliament’s upper chamber have raised concerns that Britain could veto itself, by asking for the delay and then refusing to agree to it. There has been debate about whether this is possible, but the government has yet to respond directly to those concerns.
Johnson could choose to resign rather than send the letter requesting an extension. The Cabinet Manual, which sets out the laws, rules and conventions on the operation of government, says if the prime minister resigns on behalf of the government Queen Elizabeth will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of lawmakers to serve as prime minister and form a government.
The resigning prime minister can recommend to the sovereign who this might be, so Johnson could recommend calling opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister, forcing him to be the one to request the delay to Brexit.
Johnson last week lost his working majority in parliament after one of his lawmakers defected to the pro-EU Liberal Democrats and he expelled 21 others from his Conservative Party’s parliamentary group for voting against the government.
Corbyn’s Labour Party has only 247 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons but could command a majority with the support of other opposition parties and independent lawmakers. Corbyn has previously floated the idea of leading a temporary “government of national unity” with the sole purpose of securing a delay to Brexit, before calling a national election.
Johnson would then hope to win that election to return to power with a majority in parliament large enough to approve a no-deal exit if necessary.
Alternatively, Johnson could be forced to resign by Labour calling, and winning, a vote of no confidence when parliament returns in mid-October. If no other party leader can command a majority within the following 14 days, an election would be triggered.
Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, negotiated a deal with the EU, comprising a legally binding Withdrawal Agreement to cover the immediate post-Brexit transition and a political declaration to set out the aims for the longer-term relationship.
That deal has been rejected by parliament three times, and trashed by Johnson - largely because of a clause relating to arrangements on the Irish border after Brexit. The EU is adamant this so-called “backstop” must stay, and Johnson is adamant it must go.
But, since the last time the deal was rejected, several Labour Party members have changed their minds and said they would now vote for the agreement, raising the prospect that it could get enough votes to pass.
However, politically it would be almost impossible for Johnson to present May’s deal again without changes to the backstop. There could be some leeway in altering the terms of the backstop.
It is also far from certain that there would be enough support because Johnson has lost his majority and many eurosceptics in his party oppose May’s deal for other reasons.
In addition, there is unlikely to be much time to pass the deal. Johnson has suspended parliament until Oct. 14 and is required by law to ask for a delay by Oct. 19th. The days between those dates are currently largely taken up by an EU summit at which he hopes to agree a new deal, and a debate on his new legislative programme.
Reporting by William James and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Frances Kerry