Could the EU ride to Boris Johnson’s rescue over the coming weeks, not by offering a new Brexit deal but by ruling out an extension altogether? It would certainly be one way for the government to get around the Benn Act, which requires the Prime Minister to request an extension if he doesn’t get a deal by 19 October but doesn’t dictate what the EU will say in response. The Prime Minister suggested this morning that a refusal to grant an extension could be what the government is hoping for, telling the EU on the Today programme:
‘I think it would be a mistake to keep the UK bound in beyond the time people want to come out’.
A similar view was put forward by Jacob Rees-Mogg at a Politeia Brexit fringe event last night at Tory conference. Rees-Mogg said it takes 'two to tango' and when it comes to an extension being offered it is important to ‘bear in mind…that it has to serve a purpose from the EU’s point of view and it seems very hard to find out what that point might be.’
It’s worth remembering that when an six-month extension was granted back in April, Donald Tusk told the British government: ‘Please do not waste this time’. Tusk, for one, is likely to be disappointed with how the time has been used, so might the EU block another extension out of sheer frustration?
Emmanuel Macron has certainly huffed in the past when it came to granting extra time for the Brits. It’s likely the French president will express similar reluctance again. Yet moaning about an extension is different from vetoing it altogether. If Macron – or any other EU leader – does take this step, it would certainly rescue the Tories from the Brexit trap that they find themselves in. But therein perhaps lies the problem.
While the EU might be rapidly losing patience with the Brits, it benefits Brussels little if they dig Boris Johnson out of a hole. While Rees-Mogg argues that the EU might take a look at an extension and ask itself: what’s the point? Equally, it might look at the benefits for Boris Johnson in it refusing to grant an extension and realise that it has little to gain from helping the PM at this critical juncture.
So what happens next? If the hope that the EU might refuse an extension doesn’t materialise and extra time is on offer, Brexiteers are confident about one thing: they can trust Boris Johnson to deliver. Rees-Mogg told Tory delegates:
‘So what I would say to all of you…this leader really is on our side. So I would just urge you to trust him.’
Tory MP John Redwood, who was also on the panel, made a similar point. He was asked by a party member what can be done to help Tory parliamentary candidates fight back against local challenges from the Brexit party. He said what is needed is:
‘…backbone from our Prime Minister. He has promised us that…take us out on 31 October and I don’t see what the problem is with the Brexit party. Be stopped from taking us out on 31 October in a way that is transparently not his fault and I don’t think that is a particular problem. But sell out and give in and yes there is a problem and we will lose a lot of seats.’
At the moment, Brexiteers trust Boris Johnson’s word. But as the clock ticks down until 31 October, and Boris Johnson comes under increased pressure to 'get Brexit done' one way or another, will that goodwill still exist come the end of the month?