Johnson has retreated from threats to break a law forcing him to seek a Brexit delay in October if he is unable to secure a deal.
Downing Street sources had initially indicated they would “sabotage” the legislation or ignore it.
The prime minister has now indicated to colleagues he will obey the law and seek an extension if it is forced on him by the courts.
LONDON — Boris Johnson has retreated from threats to break the law in order to force through Brexit in October, indicating to senior colleagues that he would accept a three-month delay if it was forced on him by the courts.
In private conversations with colleagues, Johnson has assured senior colleagues that he will “abide by the law,” according to the Times.
Downing Street’s initial threats simply to break the law and refuse to seek an extension now appear to have vanished, with senior cabinet ministers including Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, and Nicky Morgan, the culture secretary, thought to be ready to resign if Johnson did refuse to uphold the rule of law.
Buckland was compelled to intervene publicly and say he had reminded Johnson of his obligations not to act illegally.
“I fully support the Prime Minister and will continue to serve in his Cabinet,” Buckland tweeted.
“We have spoken over the past 24 hours regarding the importance of the Rule of Law, which I as Lord Chancellor have taken an oath to uphold.”
In interviews on Sunday, Sajid Javid, the chancellor, and Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, both said the prime minister would obey the law, but Raab said the government would “deal with that legislation and test it very carefully.”
It comes after Downing Street sources indicated on Sunday that the prime minister — who met with Irish premier Leo Varadkar on Monday — planned to “sabotage” the legally-binding extension, and “take a chainsaw to anything” standing in the way of delivering Brexit on October 31.
Brexit delay is on the way
Members of Parliament last week approved a law designed to avoid a no-deal Brexit by forcing Boris Johnson to seek a three-month delay from October 31 if he fails to secure a deal, and it is expected to receive Royal Assent today, meaning it will pass into the statute books.
It was designed and supported by opposition MPs, as well as a handful of Conservative MPs, who moved to prevent Johnson from fulfilling his “do-or-die” pledge to leave the EU on October 31 even if he had failed to secure a deal.
However, according to a Telegraph report, Downing Street is considering sending the EU one letter requesting an extension and another making it clear that the government did not desire one.
But Jonathan Sumption, a former Supreme Court justice, said such a move would result in Johnson being held in contempt of court.
“To send the letter and then attempt to neutralise it is plainly a breach of the act,” he said.
David Gauke, the former justice secretary, said on Sunday evening that Downing Street’s ambiguity over whether it would abide by the legislation was “damaging to the rule of law.”
“I am concerned that the government seems to be allowing some ambiguity that they’re unclear as to their intentions,” he told BBC’s Westminster Hour.
“It should be a perfectly straightforward thing for all ministers to say ‘we believe in abiding by the law and that is what we will do’. And just that element of uncertainty and ambiguity as to what the government’s position is, in itself, damaging to the rule of law.
“The rule of law is essential as to what we are about as country, it is central to our institutions, and it is something which all ministers have a particular duty to uphold.”