Boris Johnson did what he promised not to do on Saturday night: he formally requested a Brexit extension until January 31 2020 in three separate letters dispatched to Brussels.
The first letter asked for an extension of Article 50 talks as required by the so-called Benn act, but while it was attributed to the prime minister of the United Kingdom it was not signed by Mr Johnson.
The second was a photocopy of the five pages of the Benn legislation, which required him to apply for the extension until the end of January 2020 if MPs had not approved his exit deal by October 19.
In a third letter, which was signed by Mr Johnson to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, the prime minister said he did not favour an extension as it would “damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners”.
He said he was confident of passing his Brexit deal by October 31 according to a copy seen by the Financial Times. A meaningful vote on Mr Johnson’s deal is expected early next week.
However, the government’s defeat in the House of Commons earlier on Saturday over an amendment forcing an extension means Mr Johnson must ask Brussels to prolong negotiations beyond October 31 to comply with the law.
The first letter, unsigned, said the UK was requesting an extension to January 31 2020, but should a deal be ratified before this date, the “government proposes that the period should be terminated early”.
EU27 governments have the sole power to grant an extension of Brexit talks by unanimity. Mr Tusk took note of the letters and said he would be carrying out talks with European governments over how to respond to the request.
A senior EU official said Brussels would not immediately respond to the request and instead wait until Mr Johnson’s deal is put to a meaningful vote in the commons.
In his letter to Mr Tusk, Mr Johnson wrote: “I regret causing my fellow leaders to devote more time and energy to a question I had hoped we had resolved last week.” The prime minister said he would also be ready to come back to Brussels to talk to EU27 leaders to “answer properly any question on the position of HM Government and progress in the ratification process”.
Mr Johnson’s allies had long dropped dark hints about how to avoid seeking an extension, including the possibility that the prime minister would refuse to send the letter and wait for the matter to go to court. One aide had even suggested that the prime minister would wait for a knock on the Downing Street door from the police.
Another theory circulated by Number 10 sources suggested he might formally request an extension but simultaneously send a second letter warning the EU that if it granted an extension then Britain would cause trouble inside the club.
In the end Mr Johnson did comply with the law with barely a whimper of protest, apparently trying to absolve himself of responsibility for this U-turn by the simple expedient of refusing to sign the letter.
In a fourth letter sent from Downing Street last night to MPs and peers, the prime minister said that it was parliament that had requested the extension, not him.
“This is the greatest soap opera ever” said an EU diplomat.