Boris Johnson didn’t get to find out whether UK lawmakers would have backed his Brexit deal.
Instead, MPs forced him to ask the EU for an extension, something he previously declared he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than do.
An extraordinary Saturday sitting – the first since the 1982 Falklands War – produced a vote in favor of an amendment put forward by Oliver Letwin which delayed a vote on the deal itself until the implementation legislation is passed. That, Letwin said, is designed to guard against any “mistakes” that could trigger an accidental crash-out later this month.
Johnson was defiant. “I will tell our friends and colleagues in the EU exactly what I have told everyone else in the last 88 days that I have served as prime minister: that further delay would be bad for this country, bad for the European Union and bad for democracy”, he declared.
And that’s essentially what he did late Saturday.
An unsigned, perfunctory letter to Donald Tusk appeared to satisfy the government’s legal obligation (under legislation passed by the opposition) to request an extension.
Then, in a much longer, signed missive, Johnson told Tusk just how much he despised writing the first letter.
The prime minister called the three-year delay between the original referendum and the country’s unrealized divorce from the EU “corrosive”, dubbed Saturday’s proceedings “regrettable” and reiterated that the extension he asked for in the unsigned letter “would damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners, and the relationship between us”.
It is now up to the EU – with a pair of conflicting letters from Johnson in hand – to decide whether to grant the extension or not.
In the meantime, Boris’s Brexit deal is in purgatory, with a variety of outcomes ranging from an orderly exit to a crash-out to a second referendum to an election, all technically possible.
“Although I would have preferred a different result today, the government will press ahead with ratification and introduce the necessary legislation early next week”, Johnson wrote to Tusk. He added that he may well have the votes.
Letwin – who was caught up in Johnson’s Tory purge last month – actually supports the deal. The purpose of the amendment was simply to avert a potential misstep in the wrangling over the implementing legislation. If something were to go wrong with no extension agreed, it could result in a no-deal scenario given that the deadline is less than two weeks away.
For now, Boris’s critics get to revel in the fact that he was forced to do something he said he would never do – ask for an extension.
That he didn’t sign the letter only serves to underscore his juvenile (and ultimately futile) disregard for the rule of law.