No 10 refuse to say how Boris Johnson will comply with Brexit delay law

The prime minister and his spokespeople insist he will abide by the Benn Act, but have no plans to say how he will avoid an extension.

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After Boris Johnson’s defeat on the Letwin amendment, what next? Legally, the decision of MPs to withhold approval of the prime minister’s Brexit deal until MPs pass the legislation that will give it domestic effect, the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, has straightforward consequences: Johnson, under the terms of the Benn Act, is bound to ask the EU to delay Brexit until at least 31 January. 

Speaking immediately afterwards, however, the prime minister was unambiguous. “I will not negotiate a delay with the EU and neither does the law compel me to do so,” he said. 

That not only appears to fly in the face of the law, but repeated commitments made by the government in Parliament and in the courts. As recently as Wednesday, Steve Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, said that Johnson would comply by the Benn Act and seek a delay should a deal not pass this afternoon. 

It is impossible to reconcile that position with the prime minister’s words in the Commons. And, if there is indeed a plan to try, Downing Street have outright refused to reveal it. Under sustained and at times angry questioning by reporters after the vote, Johnson’s official spokesman would say only that the government would comply by the law. On just how the prime minister intended to do so without sending the letter his Cabinet has promised he will, there was silence. 

Does Johnson believe there is a loophole in the Benn Act? When he says he will refuse to negotiate a delay, will another minister, the Cabinet Secretary or even John Bercow do so in his stead? Will he only do so if compelled to by the courts? Or is he bluffing? Extraordinarily, we do not know – and Downing Street has no plans to tell us.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.