The scene is set for a dramatic showdown in Westminster next week after the government said it would “test to the limit” the anti no-deal legislation that could become law tomorrow.
Boris Johnson has insisted he will never ask Brussels for an extension to the Brexit deadline, putting him at loggerheads with peers and MPs who have demanded he seek a delay.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the government would be prepared to go to court to challenge the law that forces Johnson to request an extension to Article 50 – the mechanism that allows the UK to leave the bloc – if he is unable to bring back a new deal by 19 October. His position was echoed by chancellor Sajid Javid.
However, voices emerged over the weekend from EU capitals suggesting that Brussels may refuse to grant the UK a further extension, even if MPs successfully force the government to seek one.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the EU was not prepared to keep extending the deadline “every three months”, while Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, said “yet another extension for Brexit is unacceptable, unless the deadlock in London is broken”.
Raab told Sky News today: “We’re always going to behave lawfully as a government, of course you would expect that, and anyway it will be challenged in the courts. But what we are going to do with that legislation is test very carefully what it does and doesn’t require.”
Suggestions that the government may not abide by the law caused further ruptures in the Conservative party, with justice secretary Robert Buckland forced to dismiss speculation he could quit over the row. “I fully support the Prime Minister and will continue to serve in his Cabinet,” he said. “We have spoken over the past 24 hours regarding the importance of the rule of law, which as Lord Chancellor I have taken an oath to uphold.”
Last night Amber Rudd resigned from the Cabinet and quit the Tory party in protest at Johnson’s sacking of more than 20 Tory MPs who backed the bill to block a no-deal Brexit.
One of the rebels, former chancellor Philip Hammond, said the Tory party had been “taken over by unelected advisors, entryists and usurpers who are trying to turn it from a broad church into an extreme right-wing faction”.
His comments were criticised by Brexiter Tory MP Steve Baker, who said Johnson was “absolutely right” to withdraw the whip from MPs “who wanted to take away from the government the power to govern”.
“God bless Philip Hammond, but he is going off the rails. He is making a fool of himself with these hysterical remarks,” he told City A.M.
The government will tomorrow try to put forward a new motion for an early general election after Johnson’s attempt last week failed. Parliament is also due to be suspended this week, with 12 September the latest date this could happen.
An average of the five opinion polls published over the weekend gave the Tories a seven-point lead over Labour.