Boris Johnson has repeatedly insisted that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on October 31.
But the truth is that, by the end of this month, he will almost certainly have been forced to delay Brexit until at least January 2020.
Why? Put simply, his repeated “do-or-die” pledge to deliver Brexit should be read as positioning for a snap general election, rather than a sincere belief that he can take the UK out of the EU before the Halloween deadline.
The reality is that the Benn Act, which Johnson’s parliamentary opponents passed into law in September, compels the prime minister to seek an Article 50 extension by October 19 if he is unable to secure a Brexit deal at the conclusion of a crunch summit of EU leaders in Brussels on the previous weekend.
And it appears very unlikely that a deal is forthcoming.
Downing Street’s new proposals, submitted to the European Commission this week, were called a “final offer” by Johnson but “meaningless” and “not operational in any way” by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
While the European Commission has not (yet) rejected Johnson’s proposals outright, many senior figures have indicated that they are unworkable, because they would require customs checks on the island of Ireland, which would appear to contravene the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement.
European ambassadors, following a meeting with Barnier, have told Johnson that he has a week to alter his proposals, meaning that – even if an agreement in future might be feasible – getting it done by October 31 is all but impossible.
The vanishingly small chance of a deal leaves Downing Street very little wiggle room in its attempts to avoid a Brexit delay. Government sources have consistently briefed senior journalists that the Benn Act contains loopholes which means that Johnson’s promise to obey the law is compatible with his promise to leave the UK on October 31.
So why, following the publication of the documents, did a “senior Downing Street source” insist on the BBC that the UK would be able to get around the Benn Act and implement Brexit?
The best answer is that the government knows an election is coming
Taking the UK out of the EU on time is the prime minister’s central pledge, and his advisers know that the Brexit Party – fronted by arch-Leaver Nigel Farage – will be ready to pounce if Johnson fail’s to deliver on the central pledge on his premiership by hoovering up voters in the polls.
To that end, the government will have calculated that it needs to be seen to strain every sinew to deliver Brexit on time. When it does, inevitably, request an extension, it can at least try to construct the narrative that, despite its best efforts, it was dragged kicking and screaming to Brussels to request a Brexit delay by a Remain-leaning parliament, and by the judiciary – which recently quashed Johnson’s attempt to suspend parliament for five weeks.
Whether Johnson can maintain his level in support of the polls after seeking an extension and breaking the central pledge of his premiership is another question – and one for which there will likely be an answer in just a few weeks.