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9 September 2019

Could Boris Johnson break the law to prevent a Brexit extension?

This is a government that loudly and repeatedly shouted about its commitment to Brexit – and is now quietly retreating.

By Stephen Bush

Will Boris Johnson break the law to prevent an extension to the Brexit process? That’s the big question, now that the House of Commons is set to both enshrine a mandate for an extension into law and reject Johnson’s request for an election. The suggestion that a Johnson government might simply ignore the law has been briefed to several newspapers and hinted at by some ministers.

What should we make of the fact that, as the Times’s Oliver Wright reveals, Johnson has privately assured several nervous cabinet ministers that his government will obey the law? Well, on the one hand, if you’re willing to break the law and open that particularly destructive can of worms, then lying to a couple of ministers is frankly small beer.

But on the other hand, this is a government that has repeatedly issued colourful briefing about how it is utterly committed to delivering Brexit, no matter how many laws it has to break to get there – and is now quietly retreating. Remember the 101 procedural hurdles that it was going to throw in the way of Hilary Benn’s bill to seek an extension? Don’t worry if you don’t, because the government doesn’t seem to either. Or that pledge it made, to fight the bill every step of the way in the House of Lords – every step of the way turned out to mean folding at a little before half past one. It may be that the government’s attempts that were briefed in detail to today’s Telegraph – to find a way to escape its obligations – go the same way. 

The reality though is that the important Brexit battle is political. If Johnson did pursue the irrevocable step of simply ignoring the law, what would be the repercussions, both in and outside of parliament? Can the majority to stop no deal in the 2017 parliament survive the looming 2019 election? Can the 2019 election produce a parliament that can resolve Brexit in either direction? The answer to all of these questions remains unclear.

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