September 18, 2021

EU weighs up its next Brexit move after Boris Johnson sends three letters


brexit countdown_bgCreated with Sketch.

Michael Gove today guaranteed the UK will leave the European Union by October 31 as he claimed a letter asking the bloc for a Brexit delay will be withdrawn if MPs vote for Boris Johnson’s divorce deal. 

European leaders are now considering their next move after Mr Johnson blindsided Remainers and triggered major outrage last night as he sent the EU three letters in a bid to thwart any Brexit extension. 

An anti-No Deal law passed by rebel MPs forced the PM to send a letter to Brussels asking for Britain’s departure date to be pushed back after he failed to secure backing for his deal yesterday.

But the PM proceeded to send an unsigned photocopy of the legally required letter asking for the delay, another making clear the first was from parliament and not him, and a third urging Brussels not to grant the extension. 

Donald Tusk appeared to be unmoved by the manner in which Mr Johnson asked for the postponement as the president of the European Council said he would now consider the request.

Mr Tusk tweeted: ‘The extension request has just arrived. I will now start consulting EU leaders on how to react.’   

It is far from certain that the EU will grant a delay after Emmanuel Macron’s office said before the letters were sent that another extension would be ‘in the interest of no one’.

However, Mr Gove, the minister in charge of No Deal Brexit preparations, today dismissed the importance of the Benn Act letter as he said the UK will still split from the EU on October 31. 

Asked if the letter to the EU requesting a delay would be withdrawn in the coming days if Parliament backs the PM’s Brexit deal, he replied: ‘Yes. If we vote to leave, we get the legislation through, then there is no extension – October 31 is within sight.’

Asked if he could guarantee that the UK will leave the EU on time, Mr Gove told Sky News: ‘Yes, that’s our determined policy. We know that the EU want us to leave, we know that we have a deal that allows us to leave.’ 

In a sign of growing government optimism, Mr Gove also revealed he had made a bet with Health Secretary Matt Hancock about the size of the majority the PM could secure for his deal.

What happens next in the Brexit process?

– Could Mr Johnson still get his deal through Parliament?

Yes, but time is running out before the October 31 deadline as the European Parliament would also need to ratify it.

Without a meaningful vote, support for the agreement has not yet been tested.

Though the PM has attracted support from a number of prominent Brexiteer Tories, the DUP is strongly opposed to the deal.

– If there is to be another vote, when will it happen?

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, said the government wants to hold another meaningful vote on Mr Johnson’s deal on Monday.

The Commons Speaker, John Bercow, said he would consider whether to allow the government’s plans.

Welsh Labour MP Chris Bryant said, in a point of order, that it is not good practice for a Government to keep holding debates on the exact same subject.

If a vote does happen, one unnamed Scottish opposition MP has been quoted as saying next week will not be a simple case of the Government just winning a vote on their new deal.

‘We’ll amend it (over and over). It’ll be totally disfigured. A different bill entirely,’ the MP reportedly said.

– What about the letters sent last night?

Under the terms of the so-called Benn Act, which was passed against the PM’s wishes, Mr Johnson was compelled to write to the EU asking for a three-month Brexit extension if he had not secured a deal by 11pm UK time on October 19.

He sent one unsigned letter asking for a delay, another making clear the first was from MPs and a third urging the EU not to grant an extension. 

– Will the EU agree to an extension?

Despite European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker raising doubts over another Brexit delay, the decision needs to be taken by all 27 remaining EU states, not him.

However, the EU could set a different length to an extension, either shorter or longer than the three-month one cited in the Benn Act.

The EU could decide not to formally respond to such a letter from the PM until it sees if Mr Johnson can get the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through Parliament next week.

Remain campaigners and opposition leaders immediately cried foul over the PM’s letter tactics as Brexit again appeared destined to end up in the courts. 

The Scottish Court of Session is due to resume a hearing relating to the Brexit delay issue tomorrow.

But many pro-EU MPs subsequently claimed victory as they said that ultimately the PM had been forced to ask the EU for a delay despite him having said he would rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than do so. 

The government believes the premier has complied with the Benn Act but sources said they accepted they will probably have to defend the approach taken in front of judges.

Any further legal challenge is expected to focus on whether Mr Johnson has frustrated the purpose of the anti-No Deal law.

Not only did the PM not sign the Benn Act extension letter but he asked Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s ambassador to the EU, to submit it for him. It was then Sir Tim who signed the cover letter making clear the delay was being requested by parliament and not the PM. 

Mr Johnson’s own letter was sent directly to Mr Tusk and it set out the government’s intention to push ahead with plans to try to hit the Halloween divorce date.

The PM had hoped to persuade MPs to vote for his new Brexit deal yesterday during a special sitting of the House of Commons.

But he was unable to hold a ‘meaningful vote’ on the accord after an amendment was passed which forced him to ask the EU for a delay.

Mr Johnson is now expected to try to force a ‘meaningful vote’ on his deal tomorrow afternoon but he could be blocked from doing so by Commons Speaker John Bercow. 

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, was bullish this morning on the government’s chances of winning that vote as he told the BBC: ‘We believe we have got the numbers.’

He also insisted he was ‘confident’ the UK will leave the EU on October 31 and defended Mr Johnson’s decision to send three letters.  

‘Parliament cannot muzzle the Prime Minister,’ Mr Raab said. 

Regardless of what happens with Mr Bercow tomorrow, the government will table the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – the legislation needed to actually make Brexit happen – with votes expected to take place on Tuesday.

If Mr Johnson is able to crash his Brexit legislation through parliament and win a ‘meaningful vote’ on his deal by the end of this week he could still stick to his ‘do or die’ pledge.

But if he fails – and if Brexit gets dragged through the courts – the EU will be forced to decide whether to offer a delay with the potential for an emergency summit in Brussels on October 28 just days before the deadline.

Labour today confirmed it will try to hijack the PM’s deal by backing plans to attach a second referendum to it. The party will also table amendments to water down the accord in a bid to deliver a softer Brexit.

Boris Johnson, pictured in the House of Commons yesterday, sent three letters to the EU last night

Boris Johnson sent a letter to Donald Tusk last night making clear he does not want a Brexit delay

Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s ambassador to the EU, then submitted an unsigned photocopy of the Benn Act letter asking for a Brexit delay along with this cover letter

The unsigned Benn Act letter asks the EU to grant a Brexit delay until January 31 next year

Donald Tusk responded to the letters by saying he would now consider the extension request

What is happening on Brexit this week?

Monday: The government will try to force a ‘meaningful vote’ on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. But John Bercow could block it from happening. The government will also introduce the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. 

Tuesday: MPs will debate the Withdrawal Agreement for the first time. There will be a second reading vote – assuming the ‘meaningful vote’ does not go ahead on Monday this will be the first time MPs get a straight forward vote on Mr Johnson’s deal. 

Wednesday and Thursday: Assuming the Withdrawal Agreement clears its second reading it will then move onto its further Commons stages. This is when amendments are likely to be voted on. 

Friday: If Mr Johnson has not managed to make significant progress on the passage of the WAB, or if he has failed to win a vote on his deal, attention will shift to Brussels to see if an extension will be offered and whether an emergency summit will be called for October 28.  

The EU is likely to keep its powder dry in terms of whether to offer a delay until it has seen whether Mr Johnson can win a vote on his deal. 

However, France last night signalled its opposition to a further Brexit extension amid a growing feeling on the continent that the UK’s departure from the EU must be resolved once and for all. 

The presidential Elysee Palace issued a statement before Mr Johnson sent his letters which said that there was nothing to be gained by prolonging a decision on Brexit.

The Elysee said that ‘a supplementary delay is in the interest of no one’. 

Mr Macron’s office said that given that a deal has now been negotiated ‘it’s now up to the British Parliament to say if it approves or rejects it’ and ‘there must be a vote on the fundamentals’.  

Last week Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, also spoke out against another delay but Angela Merkel reportedly said that another extension would be inevitable if MPs vote against the deal.  

In his letter to Mr Tusk, Mr Johnson said a further delay to Brexit would be ‘corrosive’. 

Labour to back plans to hijack PM’s Brexit deal

Labour will support efforts to hijack Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal this week in a bid to make the Prime Minister’s divorce agreement subject to a second referendum, two of the party’s most senior figures revealed today.

Sir Keir Starmer said it was ‘inevitable’ an amendment calling for a confirmatory public vote would be brought forward and Labour would support it when the PM asks MPs to back his deal as John McDonnell agreed with the shadow Brexit secretary.

Meanwhile, Sir Keir confirmed Labour will try to change the deal to include the UK being in a customs union with the EU after Brexit in a move which would potentially torpedo the whole agreement.  

Making clear his opposition, the PM said: ‘While it is open to the European Council to accede to the request mandated by Parliament or to offer an alternative extension period, I have made clear since becoming Prime Minister… 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.

‘We must bring this process to a conclusion so that we can move to the next phase and build our new relationship on the foundations of our long history as neighbors and friends in this continent our people’s share.’

The Benn Act letter asks the EU to grant a Brexit extension to the end of January next year but the bloc could decide to propose a different date.

As well as his wrecking letter, Mr Johnson last night called some of his European counterparts to make clear he does not want the EU to delay Brexit.

A source told the Sunday Times the PM had said: ‘This is parliament’s letter. It is not my letter. Parliament is asking for a delay. I’m not asking for a delay.’

The course of action adopted by Mr Johnson after he was defeated in the Commons yesterday sparked immediate fury from his critics as the possibility of a legal challenge grew.

Jolyon Maugham QC, one of the people who brought the successful Supreme Court challenge over the unlawful prorogation of Parliament, said: ‘The Prime Minister is behaving like a spoilt child who cannot do what he wants and so does gracelessly what he must. 

‘But ultimately what matters is whether the EU accepts the request for an extension.’

Emmanuel Macron, the French president pictured in Brussels on October 18, is opposed to a further Brexit delay and wants MPs to vote on Mr Johnson’s deal

Joanna Cherry labelled the PM’s course of action ‘pathetic’ and then appeared to claim victory

Jolyon Maugham claimed the PM was acting like a ‘spoilt child’

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor claimed the PM was ‘treating Parliament and the Courts with contempt’

Will John Bercow sabotage Boris Johnson’s  Brexit plans?

John Bercow and Boris Johnson are on a collision course this evening ahead of a crunch showdown in the House of Commons tomorrow. 

Mr Johnson wants to try to force another ‘meaningful vote’ on his Brexit deal after his first attempt was scuppered yesterday. 

But the Commons Speaker is considering whether the vote should be allowed to go ahead amid growing speculation he will block the Prime Minister. 

Parliamentary rules dictate that MPs are not supposed to vote on the same motion more than once. 

Mr Bercow could argue that Mr Johnson blew his chance to vote on his Brexit deal after he failed to secure the support of MPs yesterday on ‘Super Saturday’. 

The government is likely to argue that because MPs hijacked the motion and amended it to force the PM to ask the EU for a Brexit delay they never actually voted on Mr Johnson’s original proposals. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, signalled the government’s intention to bring forward another ‘meaningful vote’ tomorrow when he addressed MPs at the close of proceedings yesterday. 

But Mr Bercow said he would have to rule on whether the vote could go ahead.

Joanna Cherry QC, an SNP MP who has played a leading role in recent Brexit legal challenges including the one being heard tomorrow in Edinburgh, described the PM’s approach as ‘pathetic’. 

She said there would be ‘no need to raise new proceedings’ against Mr Johnson because the existing case is back tomorrow. 

She then claimed victory as she added: ‘The political reality is that Boris Johnson has capitulated and requested an extension of Article 50. 

‘The Benn Act and the sword of Damocles wielded by Scottish courts has worked.’ 

Opposition politicians also responded angrily to Mr Johnson’s decision to send three letters to the EU.  

Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said he believed the PM’s adopted course would trigger a legal challenge. 

‘I am sure there will be court proceedings,’ Sir Keir told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show this morning.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, tweeted last night: ‘Johnson is a Prime Minister who is now treating Parliament and the Courts with contempt. 

‘His juvenile refusal to even sign the letter confirms what we always suspected that Johnson with his arrogant sense of entitlement considers he is above the law and above accountability.’

He added: ‘Message to Johnson. Nobody, no matter how high, is above the law and has the right to tear up our parliamentary constitution.’ 

Mr McDonnell then told Sky News today that the PM ‘may well be in contempt of Parliament’. 

He said: ‘Not signing the letter, he is behaving a bit like a spoilt brat… it flies in the face of both what Parliament and the courts have decided.’

The shadow chancellor suggested another attempt by the government to hold a ‘meaningful vote’ after yesterday’s one was scuppered was likely to be blocked by Mr Bercow on the grounds that the PM had tried and failed to get his deal agreed by the Commons. 

‘I am not even sure the Speaker will allow it,’ Mr McDonnell said.

Mr McDonnell told Sky News this morning that he believed Mr Johnson was ‘behaving like a spoilt brat’

Nigel Farage told Sky News today that the three letters sent by Mr Johnson were ‘not very prime ministerial’ but suggested the PM was right to act the way he did

Sir Oliver Letwin says he will vote for PM’s deal

Sir Oliver Letwin today said he will back Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal after the former Tory rebel’s wrecking amendment scuppered the PM’s EU divorce plans. 

MPs voted for a proposal put forward by Sir Oliver yesterday which required Mr Johnson to comply with the terms of the anti-No Deal law known as the Benn Act and write to the EU asking for an extension.  

The PM is adamant that he will deliver Brexit by October 31 and tomorrow he will try to force a fresh ‘meaningful vote’ on his deal in the Commons. 

He will also bring forward the legislation needed to actually make the UK’s orderly split from Brussels on Halloween a reality. 

The government is increasingly confident that there is a majority of MPs in favour of the new new divorce accord. 

And the PM received a boost this morning as Sir Oliver confirmed he will back the blueprint when it is put to a vote and ruled out any further attempts to prevent progress being made.

He told the BBC: ‘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. 

Meanwhile, Amber Rudd, a former Tory Cabinet minister and now an independent MP, said she will vote for the deal. 

Ms Rudd insisted there was a ‘fragile but sincere coalition of people who want to support it’.  

‘It is a very fragile coalition to support the Prime Minister’s deal,’ she told Sky News.  

He said trying to hold the vote again would be ‘pointless’ and that the government should instead focus on bringing forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill so that MPs can see exactly what the PM is proposing. 

Both Sir Keir and Mr McDonnell said it was ‘inevitable’ that MPs will try to attach a second referendum to the PM’s deal when the government brings forward its Brexit legislation this week.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said: ‘After being defeated on his extreme Brexit deal earlier, Boris Johnson is now attempting to scheme his way out of due process with childish manoeuvres. 

‘This is a Tory leader that is simply unfit for the office he holds. Boris Johnson is not above the law and if he does not fully abide by the Benn Act and secure an extension then we will see him in court.’

But Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party leader, defended the Prime Minister as he suggested sending the three letters was justified. 

Talking about the letters, he said: ‘Not very prime ministerial but given the behaviour of Remainers in parliament, I think Boris Johnson is right to be pretty angry.’ 

However, Mr Farage then described the PM’s deal as ‘rotten’ as he said it should be rejected and claimed it would be better to have a short extension in order to hold a general election.  

Today’s fallout following the sending of the letters came after a dramatic day in Parliament yesterday which saw MPs vote in favour of an amendment forcing Mr Johnson to ask for a delay. 

The amendment, put forward by Sir Oliver Letwin, was backed by 322 votes to 306. 

Yesterday’s crunch vote in the House of Commons took place as thousands of pro-EU campaigners demonstrated outside Parliament

Senior politicians including Jacob Rees-Mogg were then given a police guard when they left the parliamentary estate

Michael Gove, the minister in charge of No Deal Brexit preparations, was pictured leaving parliament flanked by numerous police officers

Andrea Leadsom, the Business Secretary, was also given police protection as she left Parliament

It stopped the Prime Minister from having a ‘meaningful vote’ on his draft divorce accord, casting doubt on whether he will be able to deliver on his ‘do or die’ pledge to take the UK out of the EU on Halloween. 

Sir Oliver was put under intense pressure from the government to drop the amendment but he decided to press ahead with it anyway. 

Today he insisted he was purely motivated by a desire to stop a No Deal Brexit as he reiterated that he does intend to back Mr Johnson’s blueprint when it is put to a vote. 

‘It is not perfect but it will do,’ he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.  

Yesterday’s crunch vote in the Commons was held as thousands of pro-EU campaigners protested outside Parliament. 

There were then ugly scenes as senior politicians including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom had to be escorted off the parliamentary estate with a police guard. 

Footage emerged of Mr Rees-Mogg walking with his son in Westminster as campaigners yelled ‘shame on you’ as police acted as a barrier between the protestors and the politician.

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