LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed he’d never, ever ask the European Union to push the Brexit deadline beyond October.

Now he has relented.

At the very last minute on Saturday night, Johnson asked the Europeans for a Brexit delay until the end of January 2020.

In fact, he sent three letters, leaving people to puzzle over exactly which one meant what — and to wonder: Where Brexit is headed next? 

A most excellent question. Because nobody really knows.

After lawmakers voted 322 to 306 to withhold support for Johnson’s new Brexit deal, scuppering his hope of finalizing Britain’s exit plan at an extraordinary — but ill-named? — “Super Saturday” session in Parliament, the prime minister was forced to fold and seek an extension.

AD

A bill passed last month by British lawmakers mandated that if a deal were not approved by Saturday, Johnson would have to formally seek a three-month extension beyond the Oct. 31 deadline.

AD

Johnson did that. 

Grudgingly? For sure.

With an eye on looming elections? Indubitably.

After the Saturday showdown in Parliament came a kind of Sunday hangover, with the British people, and the Europeans, in a bit of a fog, as they read the morning papers and slurped tea.

Johnson’s government announced it was now seeking a “meaningful vote” on his Brexit deal on Monday afternoon — a ballot that Johnson was denied by Parliament’s maneuverings on Saturday.

If that vote happens, Johnson’s ministers promised, the Brexit deal will pass.

AD

On the Sunday morning talk shows in Britain, Johnson’s cabinet emphasized momentum and speed and “let’s get Brexit done.”

His opponents, including members of his own Conservative Party, emphasized wait and scrutinize, and let’s first see what the government’s economic analysis says about the impact.

AD

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC, “Notwithstanding the parliamentary shenanigans, we appear to have now the numbers to get this through.”

As for Johnson’s three letters to the E.U., the first did not contain his signature. Much was made of this on political Twitter.

“Childish,” senior Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said Sunday, suggesting it was a stunt.

AD

But it turns out that the lack of signature doesn’t matter much, as it was an official communique from the prime minister.

The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said late Saturday that the British government had notified the E.U. of its extension request.

“I will now start consulting E.U. leaders on how to react,” Tusk said. 

But Johnson also sent a side letter, a “Dear Donald” letter, to Tusk.

It begins on a personal note: “It was good to see you again at the European Council this week.” 

AD

Then comes the bad news: “Regrettably, Parliament missed the opportunity to inject momentum into the ratification process for the new Withdrawal Agreement.”

AD

Then it puts the burden on Tusk: “I have made clear since becoming Prime Minister, and made clear to Parliament again today, my view, and the Government’s position, that a further extension would damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners, and the relationship between us.”

The Europeans have hit the “pause” button again, as they wait to see what happens in the British Parliament this week.

E.U. diplomats in Brussels told The Washington Post they will watch developments unfold in Britain before deciding how to handle the Brexit delay request.

Tusk will spend “a few days” speaking to E.U. leaders before coming up with a plan, one diplomat said.

AD
AD

Johnson’s multiple-letter strategy is unlikely to have an effect on the final decision, diplomats said. 

But E.U. leaders would prefer to know whether the new Brexit deal has passed Parliament before they decide how long to delay the date and on what terms. There is little question that an extension will be granted.

E.U. ambassadors gathered Sunday morning for a 15-minute meeting in which they signed off on the Brexit deal and forwarded it to the European Parliament so that it could be ratified this week.

That way, the accord would be squared away, from the perspective of the Europeans, on the off-chance that Johnson manages to win approval in London.

AD

The E.U. diplomats did not talk about the extension request, two people familiar with the gathering said.

As has been the case through much of the Brexit debate, Britain’s Sunday morning talk shows focused on the political fallout and the artful bobbing and weaving — with not much about what Johnson’s deal would mean for trade, business, or ordinary people.

AD

The Sunday newspapers focused on blame.

The pro-Johnson Telegraph was all sputtering blind-quoted vitriol: “Let’s call this what it is,” said one furious Downing Street insider, according to the Telegraph. “An act of sabotage.”

The Sunday Express banner headline was “Why Won’t They Let Us Leave?” The Mail on Sunday went with “House of Fools.”

AD

The Observer and the Sunday Mirror called Johnson’s defeat in Parliament the day before “humiliating.” 

Birnbaum reported from Brussels.

AD
AD