Boris Johnson asks EU for Brexit delay, but hopes he won’t need it

Bound by a law passed by opposition Members of Parliament, he formally asked the European Union to delay Brexit until Jan. 31, European Council President Donald Tusk said in a tweet.
The government sent three letters in total to the EU -- the Benn Act extension, as stipulated in law, but which the PM didn’t personally sign.(REUTERS)
The government sent three letters in total to the EU -- the Benn Act extension, as stipulated in law, but which the PM didn’t personally sign.(REUTERS)
Updated on Oct 20, 2019 06:41 AM IST
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Bloomberg | ByTim Ross in Brussels

Boris Johnson sent the letter to Brussels he never wanted to write.

Bound by a law passed by opposition Members of Parliament, he formally asked the European Union to delay Brexit until Jan. 31, European Council President Donald Tusk said in a tweet. Tusk will start consulting EU leaders on how to react, which may take a few days. A unanimous vote is required to grant an extension.

According to a Downing Street official, the government sent three letters in total to the EU -- the Benn Act extension, as stipulated in law, but which the PM didn’t personally sign; a cover note from Tim Barrow, Britain’s envoy to the EU; and a letter signed by the PM arguing that further delay is a mistake. Johnson also pledged to Parliament his desire to push on with plans to leave the bloc by his Oct. 31 deadline.

After Saturday’s defeat in Parliament, Johnson never got his chance to see if MPs would support the deal he brought back from Brussels. He now plans to push through the legislation in less than two weeks. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill could begin its journey as soon as Tuesday, after Johnson makes another attempt on Monday to get Parliament to sign off on the principle of his deal, making the extension unnecessary.

After 3 1/2 years of political turmoil triggered by the referendum, Britain’s departure from the bloc is still not completely baked in. Hundreds of thousands of pro-EU demonstrators gathered around Westminster while MPs were debating in the House of Commons.

Possible outcomes range from delaying Brexit -- allowing time for a general election or a second referendum on leaving -- to a battle in court, or a chaotic and economically damaging departure from the bloc without a deal. But if Johnson succeeds with his latest gambit, he’ll be able to meet his month-end deadline and push for an election.

Based on how MPs voted Saturday -- the government lost by 16 -- and their comments during the debate, Johnson might still have a chance. It could come down to a single vote.

Johnson’s key problem could lie in wooing back his allies in the Democratic Unionist Party. Their 10 votes made the difference between defeat and victory.

They had supported Johnson until this week, when he signed a Brexit deal that creates a customs border in the Irish Sea -- a concession designed to secure Ireland and the EU’s support for the agreement. The DUP angrily denounced that during the debate.

The day saw Conservative MPs, both current and almost all those he expelled last month, saying they would vote with him, as well as a small number of Labour MPs. If he can hold that coalition together for two weeks, he might have a chance.

Hours after the vote, French President Emmanuel Macron made it clear the deal had been negotiated and that further delay in Britain’s departure was “in no one’s interest.”

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