Boris Johnson insisted that he will not delay Brexit, despite his lawyers saying he will comply with a law calling for the October 31 exit date to be postponed if there is no deal.
The Prime Minister accepted he must send a letter requesting a delay to Brexit beyond the Halloween deadline if no deal is agreed with Parliament by October 19, Scotland’s highest civil court heard.
But Mr Johnson later said the options facing the country were his proposed new Brexit deal or leaving without an agreement, “but no delay”.
The Prime Minister has previously said “we will obey the law” but will also leave on October 31 in any circumstance, without specifying how he would achieve the apparently contradictory goals – fuelling speculation that he had identified a loophole to get around the Benn Act.
He has also declared he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask for a delay.
Any extension to the Article 50 process – the mechanism by which the UK leaves the European Union – would have to be agreed by all 27 other EU leaders.
The legal action – led by businessman Vince Dale, SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC and Jolyon Maugham QC – asked the court to require Mr Johnson to seek an extension to avoid leaving the EU without a deal.
Andrew Webster QC, representing the UK Government, said the documents it has submitted to the court are a “clear statement” as to what the Prime Minister will do.
He argued there is no need for an order to be made forcing a letter requesting an Article 50 extension to be sent under the terms of the Benn Act, because the court has it on record it will be sent.
Judge Lord Pentland is to announce his decision on Monday.
Mr Maugham told the PA news agency the Prime Minister’s submission said “he would send the letter mandated by the Benn Act” and would not “frustrate” attempts to get an extension.
He added: “We want to see the courts tell him that ‘unless you send the letter, no later than October 19, unless you cease trying to frustrate Parliament’s intention, there will be personal consequences for you, you could go to prison’.”
If Mr Johnson – who wants an early election – did request a delay it could play into the hands of the Brexit Party.
The party’s leader, Nigel Farage, said: “Boris said we would leave by October 31 ‘do or die’.
“Why does he keep saying things that are not true?”
Ireland’s premier Leo Varadkar said he would agree to an extension if Mr Johnson requested it.
“I’ve always said that Brexit doesn’t end with the UK leaving, it’s just the next phase of negotiations, but if the UK were to request an extension, we would consider it, most EU countries would only consider it for good reason, but an extension would be better than no deal,” he said.
Meanwhile, Brexit talks with Brussels on Mr Johnson’s plan to replace the backstop could continue over the weekend.
Brussels said that “every day counts” as the clock ticks down to a crunch summit of EU leaders on October 17-18 and Downing Street said “we are ready to talk at any point, including over the weekend”.
The Prime Minister is expected to embark on a tour of European capitals for face-to-face talks next week as well as continuing to speak by phone to counterparts.
European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said: “What we have always said is that every day counts, especially as we near the end of October.”
The Prime Minister’s Europe adviser, David Frost, has been in Brussels for technical talks with officials.
Downing Street also indicated the Government would consider publishing the full legal text of Mr Johnson’s proposals, which have so far only been shared confidentially with Brussels.
Mr Johnson’s plans would see Northern Ireland apply EU rules on goods, but stay in a customs territory with the UK.
This would create a regulatory barrier for goods crossing the Irish Sea and create a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – but Mr Johnson has insisted there would be no need for checks or infrastructure at the frontier.
Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said: “We don’t see how the proposal to have two different customs territories on the island of Ireland can avoid customs checks between those territories.”