Boris Johnson warns scrapping Brexit backstop ‘not going to be easy’

The hard work starts now: Boris Johnson warns scrapping the backstop and agreeing a new deal with the EU is ‘not going to be easy’ after Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel gave him an unexpected Brexit boost

  • Boris Johnson said during visit to Devon a Brexit deal is ‘not going to be a cinch’
  • PM said he wanted to caution people against thinking a new deal is in sight 
  • PM had better week than expected after positive noises from Berlin and Paris 
  • Angela Merkel’s 30 day backstop deadline bought Mr Johnson time to do deal
  • Government believes Remainer Tories will not thwart PM while deal is possible
  • That gives Mr Johnson until September 20 to come up with a new way forward
  • Ministers now expected to ‘turbocharge’ work on finding backstop alternatives 
  • But PM today warned by Tory Brexiteers scrapping the backstop is not enough
  • PM set to attend first G7 summit for talks with Donald Tusk and Donald Trump 

Boris Johnson today warned scrapping the backstop and striking a new Brexit agreement with the EU will ‘not be easy’ as he cautioned against people being too optimistic about a deal being done with Brussels. 

The Prime Minister had a better than expected week after visits to Berlin and Paris saw Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron both ask the UK to come forward with alternatives to the controversial Irish border protocol. 

The softening in their Brexit stance prompted renewed positivity on both sides of the Channel that a No Deal Brexit on October 31 can still be avoided. 

But Mr Johnson today moved to dampen that optimism as he suggested there remained a lot of work to do before Britain and the bloc get anywhere close to agreeing updated divorce terms. 

Speaking during a visit to Devon as he promoted a new government push to improve hospital food, Mr Johnson said people should not ‘hold their breath’ waiting for a big breakthrough.

He said the ‘mood music’ on his visits to Germany and France was ‘very good’ but he then struck a more cautious tone. 

‘They could see that we want a deal, they can see the problems with the backstop,’ he said. 

‘Clearly Angela Merkel thinks that the solutions can be found within 30 days – actually what she meant was if you can do it in two years you can certainly do it in 30 days.

‘But I want to caution everybody, okay? Because this is not going to be a cinch, this is not going to be easy. We will have to work very hard to get this thing done.’

Mr Johnson’s comments came as he prepared to fly to France this weekend for his first G7 summit as PM when he will meet Donald Tusk and Donald Trump for talks.

Meanwhile, it emerged that Tory Remainer rebels are set to delay their attempts to stop a No Deal split from the bloc until Ms Merkel’s 30-day window to scrap the backstop has expired. 

Boris Johnson visited Torbay Hospital in Devon today as he launched a government push to improve hospital food. His trip to to the south west came after a better than expected week for the PM on Brexit.

But Mr Johnson, pictured talking to kitchen staff at Torbay Hospital, moved to caution against too much Brexit optimism as he said a lot of work needed to be done to ensure the UK leaves the EU with a deal on October 31

The Prime Minister, pictured as he left Torbay Hospital, said people should not ‘hold their breath’ for a Brexit deal to be done as he suggested it could take a while

Ministers are confident the offer from Ms Merkel and the decision by Emmanuel Macron to give his reluctant backing to the backstop replacement plan has given the Prime Minister some room to manoeuvre. 

Labour and Lib Dem MPs want to launch a bid to topple Mr Johnson and block a chaotic split from the European Union as soon as they return from their summer holidays at the start of September. 

Without the support of a Europhile grouping of approximately 30 Conservative MPs any move against the PM is likely to be doomed to failure. 

Ms Merkel’s proposal and Mr Macron’s warmer than expected approach to finding a Brexit solution gave Number 10 reason to be optimistic yesterday. 

But Tory Brexiteers have warned Mr Johnson that deleting the backstop from the existing deal will not be enough to win their support in the House of Commons when it comes to the crunch. 

They also want action taken to make payment of the £39 billion Brexit divorce bill contingent on Britain and Brussels agreeing the terms of a future trade deal as well as tougher measures to curb the influence of the European Court of Justice. 

Mr Macron made clear yesterday in Paris that while he was open to hearing alternatives to the backstop there could be no renegotiation of the overarching Withdrawal Agreement, putting Mr Johnson on a collision course with some of his Eurosceptic backbenchers. 

The French president’s support for the German chancellor’s 30-day proposal has sparked renewed positivity on both sides of the Channel that the Brexit stalemate could broken before the October 31 deadline. 

The government is now expected to ‘turbocharge’ its efforts to come up with workable and practical alternatives to the Irish border protocol. 

Mr Macron, pictured inside the Elysee Palace in Paris yesterday, delivered a Brexit boost to Mr Johnson as he said he supported a proposal from Angela Merkel to give the UK 30 days to propose alternatives to the backstop

Mr Johnson, pictured in Paris yesterday, will have been delighted by the warmer than expected reception from Mr Macron

Boris Johnson set for debut G7 summit as PM

Boris Johnson will have to walk the tightrope of diplomacy this weekend as he flies into Biarritz for his first G7 summit as PM tomorrow and tries to persuade Donald Tusk and Donald Trump to give him a Brexit boost. 

The trip to France will represent Mr Johnson’s debut foray on the world stage and his first face-to-face meeting with the US President since he took office is expected to dominate. 

Mr Johnson will be keen to cement his strong relationship with Mr Trump and seek agreement on a timetable for striking a post-Brexit trade deal when the pair sit down for talks, potentially on Sunday. 

But the premier will have to tread carefully to avoid a potential row with Mr Trump after they adopted different positions in the run up to the summit on whether Russia should be allowed back into the G7. 

Mr Trump has repeatedly called for Vladimir Putin to be allowed to return after Moscow was booted out of the G8 in 2014 over its illegal annexation of Crimea – but Mr Johnson is ice cold on the idea. 

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson is also expected to sit down with Mr Tusk just days after the pair clashed over the PM’s demands to delete the backstop from the Brexit deal. 

Mr Tusk responded to the call by suggesting Mr Johnson was being unrealistic and dishonest in his approach. 

But Angela Merkel’s and Emmanuel Macrons’ decision to give the UK 30 days to come up with backstop alternatives will have raised Mr Johnson’s hopes of changing Mr Tusk’s mind. 

Ms Merkel’s 30-day window means Mr Johnson could now have until September 20 before he faces the prospect of a Commons plot actually capable of ousting him. 

Ministers believe disaffected Tory MPs will want to wait to see if Mr Johnson can succeed in his attempted renegotiations before pulling the trigger on any attempts to stop No Deal. 

One senior government source told The Sun: ‘Tory MPs are listening to our appeal for reasonableness, for now.’ 

A former cabinet minister said: ‘Boris needs to be given a chance to get a new deal.

‘Most Tories in the Rebel Alliance will be reluctant to be the obstruction. But when the 30 days Merkel has given him are up, that’s a different matter.’

Another minister told The Times something similar as they said: ‘Tory MPs are not going to vote down the government while they think there’s a potential deal to be done. How would they justify that?’

Jeremy Corbyn is set to hold anti-No Deal talks with opposition leaders next Tuesday but the ringleaders of the Tory ‘Remain alliance’, including Philip Hammond, are not going to attend. 

They will instead keep their powder dry as they wait to see what Mr Johnson will do next. 

However, it was claimed today that Mr Hammond is planning to hold his own talks with European leaders in a bid to lay the groundwork for a potential Brexit delay.  

Remain-backing MPs want to pass laws in the coming weeks to force the PM to ask the EU to push Brexit back again to avoid a chaotic split. 

Jeremy Corbyn, pictured alongside Labour MP Carolyn Harris in Swansea this morning, has invoted senior MPs to anti-No Deal talks next week

But the Labour leader, pictured holding a nine-month-old baby in Swansea today, has been snubbed by many Remain-backing Tory MPs who will not attend the meeting

But there is concern that Number 10 could simply ignore the request or Brussels could choose not to accept it.

Mr Hammond will therefore reportedly go over Mr Johnson’s head and speak to influential figures on the continent to try to agree a way forward. 

Citing the former chancellor’s ‘extensive’ contacts book from his time in Number 11, one MP told The Times: ‘The next step is likely to be something that seeks to direct the government to seek an extension.

‘They will need to have an idea of what extension they should be asking Brussels for.’

Ms Merkel welcomed Mr Johnson to Berlin on Wednesday as the PM told the German chancellor he is serious about the UK leaving the EU on October 31 with or without a deal

Ms Merkel made clear that while she wanted the UK to leave the EU with an agreement Germany is ready for a No Deal Brexit

Tory Remainer rebels led by Philip Hammond (pictured with Mr Johnson at the 2016 Conservative Party conference) are expected to give the PM time to come up with a backstop alternative. But the former chancellor is reportedly going to speak to EU leaders directly in a bid to lay the groundwork for a possible Brexit delay.

UK and EU both working on backstop replacement options

The EU and UK are looking at ways to solve the Brexit impasse caused by the Irish border backstop.

The British government is planning to ‘turbocharge’ measures outlined in a report written by Tory MPs which details a series of so-called ‘alternative arrangements’. 

The measures include introducing a ‘trusted traders scheme’ to remove the need for customs checks at the border and conducting food and animal checks away from the border to avoid the need for physical infrastructure to be built where the two nations meet. 

Meanwhile, one plan under consideration in Brussels would involving stripping down the existing backstop and limiting it to only apply to livestock as well as animal and plant products. 

The plan would see the UK remain in line with EU rules governing those specific areas to allow frictionless movement. 

The EU would then take a ‘controlled risk’ by accepting all other goods moving from Northern Ireland into Ireland without conducting checks at the border. 

Both plans are a long way from solving the backstop problem but the fact London and Brussels are now working on potential solutions will be viewed as a step in the right direction towards a deal.

Another supporter of Mr Hammond said: ‘He has a lot of respect from senior figures in Europe. They think he was one of the few sensible ones in cabinet.’ 

The suggestion that Tory Remainer rebels will give the PM some time before moving against him represents a major boost for Mr Johnson. 

However, today he was under fire from the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party as senior Tory Brexiteers warned removing the backstop would not be enough to secure their support.  

David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, said he would also need to see work done on the divorce bill and the influence of EU law to win him over. 

He told The Telegraph: ‘I’d argue for contingency on the money. I’d argue for tighter limits, timetable limits, sunset clauses on ECJ and things like that.

‘I’d have a small shopping list.’ 

Mr Davis said payment of the second half of the £39 billion bill should be made ‘contingent on progress on the future economic partnership’.

Meanwhile, Sir Bill Cash said: ‘We will be governed for a number of years by the other 27 member states under the existing draft Withdrawal Agreement … even with the backstop removed.’ 

Number 10 is expected to focus its efforts in the coming days on examining proposals made in a report written by former international trade minister Greg Hands and the now Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan. 

Their report, cited by Mr Johnson yesterday as he stood alongside Mr Macron, sets out a number of ways in which the backstop could be replaced. 

One source said they expected the government to ‘turbocharge’ the report which suggests measures like introducing checks on livestock away from the Irish border and the introduction of a trusted trader scheme.

Despite the pressure from Brexiteer Tories, many Conservative MPs are now feeling more confident of avoiding a No Deal Brexit after Mr Johnson’s successful trips to Berlin and Paris.

Tobias Ellwood, a former defence minister, told the BBC’s Newsnight programme: ‘We saw a new energy, a new rapport. I’m more optimistic about us securing a deal now than I have been at any time since March 2019.

What is the Irish backstop and why is it so divisive?

The so-called Irish border backstop is one of the most controversial parts of the existing Brexit deal. This is what it means: 

What is the backstop? 

The backstop was invented to meet promises to keep open the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland even if there is no comprehensive UK-EU trade deal.

The divorce deal says it will kick in automatically at the end of the Brexit transition period if that deal is not in place.

It effectively keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU and Northern Ireland in both the customs union and single market.

This means many EU laws will keep being imposed on the UK, restricting its ability to do its own trade deals. It also means regulatory checks on some goods crossing the Irish Sea. 

Why have Ireland and the EU demanded it? 

Because the UK is leaving the customs union and single market, the EU said it needed guarantees that people and goods circulating inside its border – in this case in Ireland – met its rules.

This is covered by the Brexit transition, which effectively maintains the status quo, and can in theory be done in the comprehensive EU-UK trade deal.

But the EU said there had to be a backstop to cover what happens in any gap between the transition and final deal.  

Why do critics hate it? 

Because Britain cannot decide when to leave the backstop. 

Getting out – even if there is a trade deal – can only happen if both sides agree and Brexiteers fear the EU will unreasonably demand the backstop continues so EU law continues to apply in Northern Ireland.  

Northern Ireland MPs also hate the regulatory border in the Irish Sea, insisting it unreasonably carves up the United Kingdom.   

‘The first game-changer is the fact that you have the other two key stakeholders here saying “yes, let’s be a little more flexible”. 

‘That is the opening for us to take advantage of.’

Ms Merkel told Mr Johnson that she was open to hearing how the UK proposed to replace the backstop and yesterday Mr Macron said he would follow her lead. 

Mr Macron did strike a less optimistic tone than his European counterpart as he poured cold water on the idea that Britain will be able to come up with something substantially different to the existing border insurance mechanism. 

He also insisted that any changes would have to be made within the framework of the existing deal in comments which appeared to dash Mr Johnson’s hopes of a complete overhaul.

The French president said: ‘We will not find a new Withdrawal Agreement within 30 days which will be very different from the existing one.

‘It is just that what Michel Barnier has negotiated can be amended while complying with the integrity of the single market and [stability in Ireland]… then we can find a solution.’ 

However, in a sign of the difficulties Mr Johnson could face in satisfying the EU, Mr Macron described the current backstop as ‘indispensable’. 

The EU will be deeply sceptical that the UK will be able to come up with alternatives to the backstop which are strong enough to ditch the insurance policy which was designed to ensure there is not a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event no agreement is reached on future trading terms. 

However, the fact that Mr Macron and Ms Merkel have moved at all, having previously ruled out any renegotiation, will be viewed as a step in the right direction. 

Mr Johnson has vowed to take Britain out of the EU by the October 31 deadline ‘do or die’ and with or without a deal – a position he spelled out in person to both Mr Macron and Ms Merkel. 

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