Boris Johnson's extension request is an attempt to spin defeat as victory

The Prime Minister hopes that he has found a way to both obey the law and spin that he is a devoted Brexiteer.

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Boris Johnson will send three letters to the European Commission at midnight: the first, unsigned, seeking an extension to the Article 50 process as demanded by the Benn Act, a second, signed by Boris Johnson, saying that he believes that the extension is unnecessary, and a third, by the United Kingdom’s permanent representative to the European Union, explaining the political context of the letter for the benefit of the handful of EU officials who have been sealed in a nuclear bunker for the past three years.

The line to take, as far as Downing Street are concerned, is that the three letters exhaust their legal obligations under the Benn Act. The Times is reporting that Johnson will also refuse to appoint an EU commissioner. However, the Lisbon Treaty means that it is no longer required for every member state to have an EU commissioner. In reality, these measures are carefully calibrated to stay within the law while providing sufficient political cover that any voters he might lose due to going back on his repeated insistence that the United Kingdom will leave on 31 October, come what may. Or at least, that’s what Downing Street hopes.

Are they right? Well, that they have waited until late in the day seems like a good clue they aren’t confident this approach will work – their legal obligations kick in at midnight – so they have had a day of headlines about how Boris Johnson is well hard and well into Brexit. The big Sunday television interviews in front of Andrew Marr and Sophy Ridge will act as a firebreak for the government, who will likely seek to commit news in those programmes to move the conversation along.

In practice, the EU knows full well that Johnson doesn’t want an extension. But they have little reason not to grant it. If Johnson can pass it in this Parliament, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union with a deal at the end of October (or more likely, early November): a win for the EU. If Johnson can’t pass it and wins an election, he’ll pass it in the next Parliament: a win for the EU. If Johnson can’t pass it and loses an election, then there will be a referendum between a softer version of Brexit and Remain: a win for the EU. There really is no reason at all for the EU – an organisation that even its biggest supporters know tends to avoid decisive, risky action – to gamble and refuse, though they might make suggestive noises about doing so in a bid to ease the passage of the deal.

The most likely outcome is an EU summit scheduled for next Monday. Both the EU, and Boris Johnson, will hope that Parliament has reached a definitive settlement one way or the other by then.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.