Johnson Tells Tusk U.K. Will Send Letter For Brexit Delay

Robert Hutton and Kitty Donaldson

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Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans were again thrown into chaos after the U.K. parliament voted to take more time to scrutinize the deal the prime minister struck with the European Union this week.

Without Parliament’s sign-off, Johnson is required by law to send a letter to Brussels on Saturday requesting that Brexit be delayed until Jan. 31 -- three months after his self-imposed deadline. At a rare Saturday sitting, lawmakers voted by 322 to 306 in favor of a rebel Tory’s proposal to withhold their approval for now.

#BrexitDeal. Boris Johnson will be forced to send a letter to the EU requesting an extension pic.twitter.com/DCy4zZbZjA

— Bloomberg TicToc (@tictoc) October 19, 2019

According to a person familiar with a conversation Johnson had with European Council President Donald Tusk, the U.K. will send a letter requesting a delay tonight.

But in a post-vote letter to MPs and peers in the House of Lords, Johnson said he “will not negotiate a delay” with the EU and that the government will introduce new legislation next week “needed for us to leave the European Union with our great new deal” on Oct. 31.

The person familiar with the conversation said Tusk will start consulting EU leaders on how to react, which may take a few days.

The result prolongs the 3 1/2 years of political turmoil triggered by the referendum. The possible outcomes range from delaying Brexit -- allowing time for a general election or a second referendum on leaving -- to a battle in court, or a chaotic and economically damaging departure from the bloc without a deal in just 12 days.

#BrexitDeal pic.twitter.com/UELjzvF5K5

— Bloomberg TicToc (@tictoc) October 19, 2019

Johnson’s hopes of meeting his deadline of getting the U.K. out of the EU by the end of the month now rest on pushing the legislation that implements his deal through Parliament in less than two weeks. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill could begin its journey as soon as Tuesday. But, on Monday, Johnson will make another attempt to get Parliament to sign off on the principle of his deal, making the extension unnecessary.

The scale of Johnson’s defeat on Saturday, though, shows the problem he has created for himself by alienating his allies in the Democratic Unionist Party. Their 10 votes made the difference between defeat and victory.

They had supported Johnson until this week, when he signed a Brexit deal that creates a customs border in the Irish Sea -- a concession designed to secure Ireland and the EU’s support for the agreement. The DUP angrily denounced that during the debate.

When Johnson does try to push his deal through, the question will be, as it was on Saturday morning, whether he has the votes. The day saw Conservative MPs, both current and almost all those he expelled last month, saying they would vote with him, as well as a small number of Labour MPs. If he can hold that coalition together for two weeks, he might have a chance.

Johnson could still try to circumvent the legislation forcing him to seek a delay, but he do so, he would be certain to face legal challenges that could end up in the U.K. Supreme Court.

Assuming he concedes and sends the letter, an extension will require the unanimous agreement of EU leaders. The European Commission urged the British government to clarify its next steps.

On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron said one shouldn’t be granted. But Macron made similar noises before approving a Brexit delay in April. EU officials say it’s unlikely that he or any other leader would refuse another one, particularly if the U.K. was headed for a general election.

On Saturday, the French presidency said in a statement: “Our message is clear: a deal has been negotiated. It is now up to the British parliament to say if it approves it or rejects it. An additional delay is in no one’s interest.”

If attempts to avert a no-deal Brexit fail, the consequences for Britain are likely to be severe. According to the government’s own analysis, a no-deal Brexit would cause disruption to trade, financial services, and food supplies, and risk civil disorder.

(Adds conversation with Tusk beginning in third paragraph.)

--With assistance from Greg Ritchie.

To contact the reporters on this story: Robert Hutton in London at rhutton1@bloomberg.net;Kitty Donaldson in London at kdonaldson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Edward Evans, James Amott

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