Another option to avoid having to follow the Brexit extension law – a snap general election giving pro-Brexit Conservatives a majority in parliament – was expected to disappear on Monday.
The government was due to hold a parliamentary debate and vote on Monday evening, UK time, to call a snap poll. But opposition parties said they would stand firm on their decision to deny Johnson his election – for now – leaving the PM well short of the two-thirds majority of MPs he would need to set an election date.
After the vote Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg was expected to prorogue – suspend – parliament until mid-October. The prorogation has been challenged in the courts as illegal, and Britain’s Supreme Court is due to hear the case next week.
Before parliament was prorogued it was expected to hold two votes in defiance of Johnson’s government, which has lost its majority in the Commons after expelling MPs who voted for the extension law.
Those votes would order the government to provide new details of its plans and predictions for a no-deal Brexit, which could bring chaos to British industry and shortages to supermarket shelves due to delays at the ports.
And a second vote would challenge the government to follow the new law requiring the PM to seek a Brexit extension if a divorce deal isn’t struck.
Though it would not add to the strength of the extension law, the debate would force government MPs to be clear about whether they thought the law should be obeyed.
WhatsApp messages from Conservative MPs, leaked over the weekend to BuzzFeed, showed some Tory MPs urging Johnson to ignore the law.
Government chief whip Mark Spencer told the group Johnson was “flat out trying to get a [Brexit] deal we can ALL support”.
“When we do we’ll be in a very strong place,” he said.
Leading Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith replied “the government has the right to demand that we do not hand over power to Parliament to tie the PM’s hands”.
One MP, who has said he will resign the Conservative Party if Johnson breaks the law, asked “Government has the right to ignore legislation?”
MP Sheryll Murray replied “I hope so”, and fellow Brexiteer Chris Green agreed, saying the government had a higher obligation to the 2016 referendum result.
But justice secretary Robert Buckland admonished the group, saying “for anyone who has any doubt, this government like its predecessors observes the rule of law at all times and for all seasons”.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the government was going to examine the extension law “very carefully [and] test what it legally requires and what it doesn’t” to try to find a loophole.
The Telegraph reported a Downing Street source saying “we intend to sabotage any extension”, and would also sabotage any Brexit delay if one was forced on the government.
I no longer believe leaving with a deal is the government’s main objective
Former cabinet minister Amber Rudd
Number 10 hoped the double-letter strategy, with the second letter a “political explainer” saying there were no reasons for an extension, would persuade the EU not to agree to it.
It is understood that EU leaders would be likely to grant an extension otherwise, despite French concerns it would drag on Brexit again with no likely breakthrough on a deal.
Cabinet minister Amber Rudd resigned from the Johnson government on the weekend, saying “80 to 90 per cent” of the UK’s Brexit work was spent preparing for an “inferior” no-deal option.
In her resignation letter she said “I no longer believe leaving with a deal is the government’s main objective”.
Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court judge, told the BBC that “to send the letter [requesting an extension] and then try to neutralise it seems to me to be plainly a breach of the Act”.
And he warned the government “courts are not very fond of loopholes” and could issue an injunction forcing Johnson or one of his officials to request an extension in a proper manner.
Disobeying such an injunction could be an imprisonable offence.
Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age