Boris Johnson has sent an unsigned letter to European council president Donald Tusk requesting a further Brexit delay beyond 31 October accompanied by a signed one arguing against it.
The prime minister sent three letters: an unsigned photocopy of the request he was obliged to send under the Benn Act, an explanatory letter from the UK’s ambassador to the EU and a personal letter explaining why Downing Street did not want an extension.
In the signed message, he warned of the “corrosive impact” of a long delay, and that “a further extension would damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners, and the relationship between us”. He said Parliament had “missed the opportunity to inject momentum into the ratification process” yet remained confident Brexit legislation would be passed by 31 October.
The move sparked concerns the prime minister could face fresh court action. One former Tory cabinet minister said: “This is clearly against the spirit of the Benn Act and is not consistent with the assurances that were given by Downing Street to the Scottish courts about applying for an extension. It will also put government law officers in a very uncomfortable position.”
The late-night letters followed another bruising day in the Commons for Johnson, where MPs voted by 322 to 306 to withhold approval of his EU exit deal, forcing him to write to Brussels by 11pm on Saturday to request an extension until 31 January 2020.
Despite the prime minister’s insistence that he would not “negotiate” a further extension of the UK’s membership of the EU, he confirmed on Saturday evening that he had sought such a prolongation. Shortly after 10pm London time, Tusk tweeted: “The extension request has just arrived. I will now start consulting EU leaders on how to react.”
An EU source said Tusk’s deliberations with European leaders “may take a few days”.
After the extension request was sent, Jeremy Corbyn accused Johnson of “petulant posturing and bluster” and said “his damaging deal was defeated today.”
Officials in Brussels said there was little doubt that an extension request would be granted, despite the prime minister’s attempts to throw doubt on such a move. A decision on the terms could be taken later in October to allow for events to unfold in London. A summit could be held as late as 29 October.
The Commons voted on Saturday that it would not approve the Brexit deal until all related legislation was passed. MPs were concerned that the legislation would not be passed by 31 October, leaving open the possibility of the UK accidentally crashing out.
That decision triggered the Benn act which placed the prime minister under a legal obligation to request an extension unless a deal had been approved by 11pm UK time on Saturday.