In Depth

Has Boris Johnson ‘outwitted’ Remainers?

Prime minister reportedly wants Brussels to rule out Article 50 extension

Boris Johnson is to ask the EU to rule out a further extension to Article 50 as part of a new Brexit deal, according to reports this morning.

As tensions intensify over Britain’s scheduled exit from the bloc, the prime minister is due to publish a legal text this week that spells out his proposed alternative to the Irish backstop.

The Times claims that Johnson has “privately made clear that an agreement should include a commitment from the 27 other EU nations that they will not allow another Brexit delay”.

He reportedly hopes this move will hand MPs a binary choice of agreeing his revised deal or ensuring that Britain crashes out without a deal on 31 October. This would effectively annul the Benn Act, which forces the PM to request an extension to Article 50 until 31 January if he cannot pass a deal in Parliament by 19 October.

This morning, Johnson told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that “we haven’t made any such request”, but quickly added that the EU wants to “get this done as much as we do”.

“Panicking Remainers are terrified that Boris Johnson has outwitted them all,” claims Tom Harris in The Telegraph. “Publicly they insist that the Benn Act is waterproof. Privately they fear it may not be Boris proof.”

Senior ministers are preparing for a “moment of truth” for Dublin, Paris, Berlin and Brussels when Johnson reveals his text on proposals for the Irish border after Brexit, says The Times.

Irish broadcaster RTE has claimed that the plan would involve “customs sites on both sides of the border and real-time tracking devices on lorries”. But Johnson has since insisted “that’s not what we’re proposing at all”, and said the plans would be revealed in the coming days.

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Although the PM hopes to get around the Benn Act, many of his Tory colleagues are not sure whether this will be possible. According to The Times, one minister who has taken part in “war-gaming” attempts to circumvent the act has conceded: “The law is the law.”

However, “should the EU agree to both a new deal and to rule out an extension, the parliamentary arithmetic will be radically altered”, says the newspaper, adding: “Ministers expect Mr Johnson to ‘take it to the max’ to force Britain to leave the EU at the end of this month.”

The PM has apparently told aides that he is willing to give evidence to any potential Supreme Court hearing on the legality of the Benn Act.

Matthew Flinders, a professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, says that “confounded by Westminster”, Johnson’s latest moves involve trying to “discredit the whole system”.

In an article on The Conversation, Flinders adds: “It isn’t too soon to suggest that underneath that often bumbling and buffoon-like exterior there is in fact an incredibly ambitious and strategically calculating politician.”

Johnson’s vision of successful statecraft is unquestionably tied to a populist strategy that fuels a wider frustration and anti-political sentiment, he argues.

“Populism as a mode of statecraft may actually work very well for Johnson,” Flinders concludes. “It’s democracy that will carry the cost.”

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