LONDON (Reuters) - The British government insisted on Sunday the country will leave the European Union on Oct. 31 despite a letter that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced by parliament to send to the bloc requesting a Brexit delay.
The Brexit maelstrom has spun wildly in the past week between the possibility of an orderly exit on Oct. 31 with a deal that Johnson struck on Thursday and a delay after he was forced to ask for an extension late on Saturday.
Johnson’s defeat in the British parliament over the sequencing of the ratification of his deal exposed the prime minister to a law passed by those opposed to a no deal departure, demanding he request a delay until Jan. 31.
Johnson sent the request note as required, but unsigned, and added another signed letter arguing against what he cast as a deeply corrosive delay. One of his most senior ministers said Britain would still leave the bloc on Oct. 31.
“We are going to leave by October 31. We have the means and the ability to do so,” Michael Gove, the minister in charge of no-deal Brexit preparations, told Sky News.
“That letter was sent because parliament required it to be sent ... but parliament can’t change the prime minister’s mind, parliament can’t change the government’s policy or determination.”
In yet another twist to the running Brexit drama, Johnson sent three letters to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council.
First, a brief cover note from Britain’s EU envoy explaining that the government was simply complying with the law; second, an unsigned copy of the text that the law, known as the Benn Act, forced him to write; and a third letter in which Johnson said he did not want an extension.
“I have made clear since becoming Prime Minister and made clear to parliament again today, my view, and the Government’s position, that a further extension would damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners, and the relationship between us,” Johnson said in the third letter, signed “Boris Johnson”.
The EU, which has grappled with the tortuous Brexit crisis since Britons voted 52%-48% to leave in a 2016 referendum, was clearly bewildered by the contradictory signals from London.
Tusk said he had received the request from Johnson and would start consulting EU leaders on how to react.
French President Emmanuel Macron told Johnson that Paris needed swift clarification on the situation after Saturday’s vote, an official at the French presidency told Reuters.
“He (Macron) signalled a delay would be in no one’s interest,” the official said.
It was unlikely that the EU’s 27 remaining member states would refuse Britain’s request, given the impact on all parties of a no-deal Brexit. Diplomats said on Sunday the bloc would play for time rather than rush to decide, waiting to see how things developed in London.
Gove said the risk of no deal had increased and the government would step up preparations for it, including triggering its “Operation Yellowhammer” contingency plans.
“We cannot guarantee that the European Council will grant an extension,” he said, adding that he would chair a meeting on Sunday “to ensure that the next stage of our exit preparations, our preparedness for a no deal, is accelerated”.
Johnson won the top job by staking his career on getting Brexit done by Oct. 31 after his predecessor, Theresa May, was forced to delay the departure date twice. Parliament rejected her deal three times, by margins of between 58 and 230 votes.
He had hoped to pass his own newly struck deal at an extraordinary sitting of parliament on Saturday but that was derailed by a legislative booby trap set by a rebel lawmaker concerned that Britain might still drop out without a deal.
Lawmakers voted 322 to 306 in favour of an amendment that called for the legislation around the withdrawal deal to be approved first. This turned Johnson’s planned finale on its head by obliging him to ask the EU for a delay, and increasing the opportunity for opponents to frustrate Brexit.
In his own signed letter to Tusk, Johnson said he was confident that the process of getting the legislation through Britain’s parliament would be completed before Oct. 31.
Former minister Amber Rudd said she and most of the 21 Conservatives kicked out of the ruling party over their bid to block a no-deal Brexit would support the deal and there was “a fragile but sincere coalition of people who want to support it”.
Oliver Letwin, the lawmaker behind Saturday’s amendment, said on Sunday that he believed Johnson could probably get his Brexit deal over the line.
“I am absolutely behind the government now as long as they continue with this bill, continue with the deal. I will support it, I will vote for it,” Letwin told BBC television.
But the opposition Labour Party accused Johnson of acting as if he was above the law, and said the prime minister could end up in court.
Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said the party would put forward amendments to Johnson’s Brexit legislation, particularly aimed at closing the “trap door” to a no-deal Brexit kicking in at the end of a transition period in December 2020.
“He is being childlike. The law is very clear he should have signed one letter ... If we crash out, because of what he has done with the letters, in 11 days’ time without a deal he bears personal responsibility for that,” Starmer told BBC television.
Asked whether it would end up in court, Starmer said: “I am sure there will be court proceedings.”
Scotland’s highest court is due to consider on Monday a legal challenge that had sought to force Johnson to comply with the Benn Act. Under that law, Johnson was obliged to write to the EU seeking a delay if parliament had not approved either a withdrawal deal or a no-deal exit by Oct. 19.
The court said earlier this month that government lawyers had given formal legal statements that he would abide by the law and that it would be a serious matter if he did not.
Starmer also said an election was inevitable.
Writing by Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Dale Hudson and Frances Kerry