Thursday 19 September 2019

'It means raising the white flag' - Boris Johnson hits out at vote for Brexit extension

  • Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British PM to meet on Monday to discuss Brexit
  • Former Conservative MP Phillip Lee leaves party to join Lib Dems
  • Boris Johnson has now lost a working majority in the Commons
  • UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says he's ready if an election is called
  • Speaker John Bercow has granted an emergency debate on Brexit
  • Johnson insists progress is being made in Brexit talks - but the EU says no-deal outcome remains a 'distinct possibility'
  • "We're waiting. But for the moment there is zilch" - EU
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts as he meets with NHS workers inside 10 Downing Street in London, Britain September 3, 2019. Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool via REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts as he meets with NHS workers inside 10 Downing Street in London, Britain September 3, 2019. Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool via REUTERS

Kevin Doyle and David Hughes

British lawmakers have triggered a vote that could allow them to stop Boris Johnson pursuing a "no-deal" Brexit, a challenge that the government warned would prompt UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to seek an election on Oct. 14.

If lawmakers are granted control of the parliamentary business, they will seek on Wednesday to pass a law that would force Johnson to ask the EU to delay Brexit for three months until Jan. 31, 2020 unless he has a deal approved by parliament, or parliament agrees to a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Johnson cast the challenge as an attempt to force Britain to surrender to the EU just as he hopes to secure concessions on the terms of the divorce - a step he said he would never accept.

"It means running up the white flag," Johnson said. "It is a bill that, if passed, would force me to go to Brussels and beg an extension. It would force me to accept the terms offered. It would destroy any chance of negotiation for a new deal."

Mr Johnson insisted progress is being made in Brexit talks with Brussels and the chances of an agreement have risen - but the European Union said a no-deal outcome remained a "distinct possibility".

His comments follow claims his key aide Dominic Cummings described the process as a "sham", although the UK Prime Minister told MPs said the report was "wholly implausible".

The European Commission said while there was "progress on process" because of the increased tempo of meetings between officials from the two sides, there were still no "concrete" proposals from the UK side about how to resolve the Irish backstop issue.

Reports from Brussels suggested diplomats from the 27 remaining EU member states were given a pessimistic assessment of progress.

RTE reported that the European Commission's Article 50 task force told diplomats that under Mr Johnson the UK is reneging on its commitments to protect the all-Ireland economy and meaningful North-South cooperation.

A source told the broadcaster: "Nothing has been put on the table, not even a proper sketch or hint of a plan. We're waiting. But for the moment there is zilch."

But Mr Johnson told MPs his efforts to force Brussels to make major changes to the Brexit deal were bearing fruit.

He said he had set out why any future agreement must see the "abolition of the anti-democratic backstop" - the measure which would keep the UK closely tied to EU rules to prevent a hard border with Ireland if no alternative solution can be found.

"We've also been clear that we will need changes to the Political Declaration to clarify that our future relationship with the EU will be based on a free trade agreement and giving us full control over our regulations, our trade and our foreign and defence policy," he said.

"This clarity has brought benefits. Far from jeopardising negotiations, it has made them more straightforward.

Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson don’t have much in common – let alone their Brexit policies
Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson don’t have much in common – let alone their Brexit policies

"In the last few weeks, I believe the chances of a deal have risen.

"This week we are intensifying the pace of meetings in Brussels. Our European friends can see that we want an agreement and they're beginning to reflect that reality in their response."

Mr Johnson acknowledged concerns about how to deal with regulations on food and agriculture and appeared to back one system operating across the island of Ireland.

"We recognise that for reasons of geography and economics agri-food is increasingly managed on a common basis across the island of Ireland," he said.

"We are ready to find ways forward that recognise this reality provided it clearly enjoys the consent of all parties and institutions with an interest."

Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray walks during a demonstration at Westminster, in London, Britain September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray walks during a demonstration at Westminster, in London, Britain September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

The status of the negotiations has come under intense scrutiny after the Daily Telegraph reported that Mr Johnson's senior adviser Dominic Cummings described the process as "a sham" in private meetings - a claim strongly denied by Downing Street.

Gavin Barwell, who was Theresa May's chief of staff in Number 10, said he had heard the same reports about "sham negotiations" from "multiple" government sources.

But Downing Street said Mr Johnson's Europe adviser David Frost has held a series of meetings in Brussels and will be back there "later this week".

The talks were covering a "full range of issues, which includes the Withdrawal Agreement but also the Political Declaration", the Prime Minister's spokesman said.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will update Jean-Claude Juncker and the commissioners on Wednesday on "developments in London" and the talks with Mr Frost.

Mr Juncker would also report back on his conversations with Mr Johnson and the commission will also consider no-deal planning.

Asked whether Brussels now expected a no-deal Brexit as the most likely outcome, commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said: "Our working assumption is that there will be Brexit on October 31, whether it is the most likely scenario? I would say that it is a very distinct possibility, which is precisely the reason why we do launch this final call tomorrow for everyone to be prepared in case a no-deal Brexit occurs."

She said the EU "can't report any concrete proposals having been made" by the UK side to break the Brexit deadlock.

Meeting

An anti-Brexit protester holds a puppet and a sign during a demonstration at Westminster, in London, Britain September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
An anti-Brexit protester holds a puppet and a sign during a demonstration at Westminster, in London, Britain September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to meet with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin next Monday, Independent.ie understands.

Sources in Dublin said they are “very happy” that Mr Johnson has finally taken up an invitation issued by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The Prime Minister confirmed his intention to discuss Brexit with face-to-face with the Taoiseach during a rowdy debate in the House of Commons.

The news comes as Mr Johnson faces a revolt from Tory members ahead of a Commons battle over his Brexit plans.

Speaker John Bercow has this evening granted an emergency debate to discuss whether a cross-party alliance of MPs can take control of the Commons agenda and seek to block a no-deal Brexit on October 31.

Quit

Earlier, in a moment of high-drama in the Commons, former Conservative MP Phillip Lee quit the party to join the Liberal Democrats, crossing the floor while Prime Minister Boris Johnson was delivering a statement on the recent G7 summit.

It means the British government has now lost its working majority in the Commons.

Former UK chancellor Philip Hammond has also confirmed that he will vote for legislation designed to block a no-deal Brexit.

However, Mr Johnson has said he would obey the law, when asked by a lawmaker if his government would abide by legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit.

Lawmakers are planning to seize control of parliamentary time on Wednesday to pass a law forcing Johnson to seek a delay to Brexit, but at the weekend one of his senior ministers said that the government would only "look at" such legislation.

Asked by an opposition Labour lawmaker whether the government would abide by the rule of law if a bill passes which makes it illegal to leave without a deal, Johnson told parliament: "We will of course uphold the constitution and obey the law."

Yesterday the British PM signalled he will seek a snap election if rebel Tories and opposition MPs back measures to delay Brexit.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told parliament that Johnson's was a government with "no mandate, no morals and, as of today, no majority".

In the eye of the Brexit maelstrom, it was unclear if opposition parties would support any move to call an election - which requires the support of two-thirds of the 650-seat House of Commons.

"If an election is called, I am absolutely ready to fight it," Corbyn said after a meeting with leaders of other opposition parties, while adding that his priority was to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

Fears of an abrupt 'no-deal' Brexit were rising elsewhere.

The European Commission said such a scenario was a "very distinct possibility" and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was the most likely scenario.

The U.N. trade agency UNCTAD said it would cost Britain at least $16 billion in lost exports to the EU, plus a further substantial sum in indirect costs.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence used his visit Ireland on Tuesday to urge the European Union to negotiate with Britain "in good faith".

Meanwhile, the UK Government appears to have been considering suspending Parliament as early as mid-August, documents submitted to a Scottish court suggest.

The details emerged as a legal action aimed at halting the suspension of Parliament got under way at the Court of Session - Scotland's highest civil court.

A note dated August 15 from Nickki da Costa, a former director of legislative affairs at Number 10 and seen by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his adviser Dominic Cummings, asked whether an approach should be made to prorogue Parliament.

The dates suggested were between September 9 and October 14.

A note of "yes" was written on the document, the Court of Session in Edinburgh heard, although the author of the annotation was not disclosed in court.

Additional reporting from PA and Reuters.

Read more here: US Vice President Mike Pence urges Ireland and EU to negotiate Brexit 'in good faith' with Boris Johnson

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