The government has formally requested an extension to the UK’s exit from the European Union, but prime minister Boris Johnson has written an accompanying letter urging member states not to grant one following a weekend of political drama.
MPs voted not to approve the government’s revised Brexit deal, agreed last week in Brussels, in the first Saturday sitting of parliament for 37 years. Instead, they approved an amendment by former Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin that, while noting the deal, “withholds approval unless and until implementing legislation is passed”.
If the deal had been approved, the provisions of the legislation put forward by former Labour cabinet minister Hilary Benn, which required the government to seek a three-month extension to the Brexit deadline if a deal is not supported by parliament by 19 October, would no longer have applied.
The Letwin amendment was put forward to avoid a scenario in which an extension had not been granted but parliament failed to pass legislation to implement a deal by 31 October. This could lead the UK to leave the EU without a deal.
Following the passage of the Letwin amendment, three government letters were sent to the European Council. The first was a replica of the letter Johnson is required to send under the terms of the Benn Act, to ask for an extension up to 31 January 2020, unless a deal could be ratified sooner. However, the letter was unsigned and did not have the No.10 Downing Street letterhead. It stated that “the United Kingdom proposes that this period should end at 11.00pm GMT on 31 January 2020.
An accompanying letter from Sir Tim Barrow, the top civil servant in the UK Permanent Representation to the EU, to EU Council secretary general Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, said the request for an extension was “sent as required by the terms of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.2) Act 2019” – the formal name of the Benn Act.
“In terms of the next steps for parliamentary process, Her Majesty’s government will introduce the necessary legislation next week in order to proceed with ratification of the withdrawal agreement,” Barrow added.
The third missive from Johnson to European Council president Donald Tusk argued that the EU should refuse to agree to the extension.
“While it is open to the European Council to accede to the request mandated by parliament or to offer an alternative extension period, I have made clear since becoming prime minister... that a further extension would damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners, and the relationship between us,” the letter said.
Johnson said he regretted that parliament had not approved his withdrawal agreement on Saturday. He said he would seek a second vote on the deal today, and introduce formal legislation to implement the deal tomorrow.
"It is, of course, for the European Council to decide when to consider the request and whether to grant it,” he said.
“The government will press ahead with ratification and introduce the necessary legislation early next week. I remain confident that we will complete that process by 31 October.”
"Indeed, many of those who voted against the government today have indicated their support for the new deal and for ratifying it without delay. I know that I can count on your support and that of our fellow leaders to move the deal forward, and I very much hope therefore that on the EU side also, the process can be completed to allow the agreement to enter into force."
After the trio of letters were sent, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove announced that the government had triggered its Operation Yellowhammer plans for a no-deal exit.
Yellowhammer is the government’s planning for a possible no-deal exit, coordinated by the Cabinet Office’s civil contingencies secretariat.
Details of the planning assumptions from the Yellowhammer team were published on 12 September. This analysis, which the government has described as a no-deal "reasonable worst-case scenario", revealed departments had predicted food and medicine shortages, public disorder and traffic gridlock if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
The document said the contingencies secretariat was “coordinating cross-government contingency preparations for the UK leaving the EU if we leave without a deal”, assisting the Department for Exiting the European Union. It said it would also provide a “coordination system across the government and partners for deployment at the time of exit, to allow the rapid identification of impacts, fast decision making and delivery of effective responses”.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “We have now entered the final, most intensive stage of the government’s preparations for leaving the EU without a deal by triggering Operation Yellowhammer.
“This makes sure we will have done everything possible to prepare for leaving the EU without a deal on October 31.”
The implementation of the Yellowhammer plans means hundreds of civil servants are expected to be moved to work on Brexit preparations full time, with departments that are most affected by a possible no-deal exit being leant staff under a “buddy” system.