The Brexit crisis may be heading for a court showdown after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned that the UK government will test the law “to the limit” to avoid a further extension to the UK’s departure from the EU.
Boris Johnson was left reeling over the weekend resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, who claimed the government is making little effort to secure a deal. The Prime Minister has been warned he could face jail over his threats to defy a bill passed by the opposition at Westminster calling on him to seek an extension beyond 31 October if no deal is reached with the EU.
The government will bring a fresh attempt to the Commons today for a snap general election on 15 October, but it looks set to be rejected by opponents who are anxious to avoid a no- deal Brexit.
Mr Raab insisted yesterday that ministers will operate within the law but hinted there may be scope within the “lousy” legislation for the government to avoid seeking an extension.
This was branded “extraordinary” by opponents, who said it would inevitably lead to a court challenge and possible contempt proceedings against the Prime Minister.
Mr Raab said the legislation “weakened” the government’s negotiating position in Brussels.
“That legislation is lousy, it envisages multiple delays, it would effectively force us to accept conditions from the EU, however vindictive, punitive and harsh they may be,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.
He added: “What we are going to do with that legislation is test very carefully what it does and doesn’t require. That’s not only the lawful thing to do – it’s the responsible thing to do.
“We’re always going to behave lawfully as a government, and anyway it will be challenged in the courts.”
He accused Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of dragging the country “into the quicksand”.
Shadow attorney general and Labour peer Baroness Chakrabarti insisted the law is “crystal clear” and dismissed the government’s position as “utterly unconvincing”.
She cited a legal opinion which emerged yesterday stating that Mr Johnson would be open to a range of legal sanctions, including jail, if he disobeys the law.
“A number of QCs make it crystal clear that if you don’t abide by that legislation, people start going to court. And then if you ignore court orders you’re in contempt of court.
“We don’t want to be in that place.”
Opposition MPs and peers rushed the law through Parliament to effectively block a no-deal Brexit, forcing the Prime Minister to ask the European Union for a three-month deadline extension if no agreement is in place by 19 October. It will receive Royal Assent this week.
In advice given by “leading QCs” to shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer and seen by the Observer newspaper, the top barristers said: “If the Prime Minister refused to comply with this order then, while we would be in historically uncharted political territory, the legal position would remain clear: the Prime Minister would be in contempt of an order of the court and would be exposed to a full range of sanctions.”
One of the QCs consulted, Philippe Sands, said Mr Johnson could even go to jail if he fails to respect the will of Parliament, but concluded it was more likely he would be ousted from Downing Street.
“He will comply or leave office,” said Mr Sands.
MPs, including Tories expelled by the party, have lined up a legal team and are already preparing to go to court to enforce the law to avoid no deal if necessary.
Mr Johnson says he will “refuse to accept” any “pointless delay” on Brexit, in the clearest move yet that Downing Street is looking for ways to disobey a law blocking no-deal.
Chancellor Sajid Javid said the government “absolutely will not” ask the EU to extend the date of Brexit, adding: “We will leave on 31 October.”
Asked how this would work, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme: “You will have to wait and see what happens because there is a lot of days between now and 19 October.”
But, in comments made to two Sunday newspapers, Mr Johnson accused MPs of “trying to wreck” the negotiations and repeated his commitment to taking Britain out of the EU by Halloween.
Mr Johnson wants a Supreme Court battle over whether he can defy the rebel law demanding a Brexit extension, sources claimed at the weekend.
The SNP’s foreign affairs and Europe spokesman, Stephen Gethins, said Scotland will not be “bullied” by the approach of Mr Johnson’s government.
“The Tories are behaving like a bunch of cowboys by attempting to subvert the law, intimidate opponents and pull every trick to railroad their reckless Brexit plans through,” Mr Gethins said.
“This is not normal behaviour in a democracy. The SNP will stand firm and continue to stand up for Scotland’s interests and our overwhelming decision to remain in the EU.”
Mr Johnson, in comments made to the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Express, said he would not ask the EU for an extension to Article 50.
“Let’s be clear what is going on in Parliament – there is a group of MPs, led by [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn, who simply want to block Brexit,” he said.
“They want to stop this country from leaving on October 31, so they are trying to wreck the government’s negotiations.
“They would force this country to accept ever more dither and delay. I refuse to accept Corbyn’s pointless delay.”
The PM said he would give Labour “one last chance” to agree to an autumn general election today but, if that was declined, the government would “simply carry on”.
He is set to ask MPs to agree to a snap election when they return to the Commons after a similar move failed to secure the two-thirds majority required on Wednesday.
“We will surmount all the obstacles in our path,” he said. “We will work tirelessly for a deal, even though Corbyn would like to make that task far harder.
“But whatever happens we will get ready to come out on October 31.”