Boris Johnson has told Sky News the chances of a Brexit deal are “improving” now his messages on the £39bn divorce bill and Irish border backstop have “landed” with EU leaders.
The prime minister, speaking at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, claimed there was a “reasonable chance” that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October with an exit deal.
But he repeated his stance that the UK’s current withdrawal agreement is “dead” and warned that without a Brexit deal, Britain is not legally obliged to stump up the full £39bn EU divorce bill.
Before a meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk on the sidelines of the gathering of world leaders, Mr Johnson told Sky News’ political editor Beth Rigby a Brexit deal – or a “no-deal” Brexit – depends “entirely” on the EU.
Challenged as to whether he stood by his previous assertion that the odds of a no-deal Brexit are a “million to one”, the prime minister said: “No deal or a deal depends entirely on our friends, some of them here, our partners across the EU.
“And I think in the last few days we’ve had quite a lot of success in landing some messages about what the UK can do and can’t do.
“Let’s be clear, I think at the moment there’s a reasonable chance that we’ll get a deal.
“But, in order to get that deal – to repeat my message – we’ve got to prepare to come out without one.”
Mr Johnson has travelled to Berlin and Paris in recent days for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Asked if a Brexit deal was more or less likely after those meetings, the prime minister said: “I’m an optimist.
“I think the chances of a deal are improving but there’s got to be a great deal of realism on the part of our friends that the withdrawal agreement is dead.
“The text that parliament rejected three times cannot now be made to go through.
“And I know people think ‘what’s this all about?’
“Fundamentally, the problem with that withdrawal agreement is it would keep the UK locked in the EU’s trading arrangements and in the lunar pull of EU law without being able to have a say on that.
“That’s why it’s totally unacceptable.”
Mr Johnson would not confirm whether he directly told Mrs Merkel or Mr Macron that the UK would not pay the full Brexit divorce bill in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
But he said the two EU leaders “understand that if there isn’t a deal then the £39bn is no longer legally pledged”.
“As I’ve said many, many times, we will therefore on 1 November have very substantial sums available from that £39bn to spend on supporting our farmers… and indeed for investment in all sorts of areas that are important to our people,” he added.
Mr Tusk has suggested Mr Johnson won’t want to go down in history as “Mr No Deal”.
But, ahead of the pair’s meeting, the prime minister responded: “The people who are going to be responsible for no deal are not in the UK, we don’t want no deal.
“It’s simply not possible for us to have an agreement that contains the backstop in the way that I’ve described, that keeps us locked in the EU arrangements that I’ve described.
“That point I think has now landed with our friends and I think that they’ll see a way forward.”
Tomorrow I meet PM @BorisJohnson. I hope that he will not like to go down in history as “Mr. No Deal”. The EU is ready to listen to operational, realistic ideas acceptable to all Member States including Ireland, if and when the UK government is ready to put them on the table.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) August 24, 2019
During their talks, Mr Johnson claimed he and Mr Tusk had spent most of their time at the G7 summit “in completely glutinous agreement on most of the issues that have been raised, whether it has been Ukraine or Russia or Iran… Hong Kong”.
“A demonstration of the closeness of the UK to our European friends which will persist beyond 31 October, whatever happens,” he added.
Mr Tusk told the prime minister: “I couldn’t agree more.”
A UK government official revealed Mr Johnson had told Mr Tusk that the UK would leave the EU in less than 68 days’ time with or without a deal.
“The prime minister repeated that we will be leaving the EU on 31 October whatever the circumstances, we must respect the referendum result,” they said.
An EU official said the meeting mainly saw both sides restate their known positions.
“We need input from their side. … What we would ideally have been hoping for and looking for were new elements to
unblock the situation,” they said.
“But, it was absolutely cordial all the time. It was not difficult.”
The two men will meet again at the UN General Assembly next month.
Mr Johnson, who took a morning swim in the sea off the French coast on Sunday, also downplayed the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the UK, despite admitting to Sky News “there may be bumps in the road”.
He said it was “highly unlikely that there will be food shortages of any kind” in British shops should the UK leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
“We can get through this, I think this is a great, great country – the UK – and we can easily cope with a no-deal scenario,” the prime minister added.
Earlier on Sunday, Mr Johnson held his first face-to-face talks with Donald Trump since taking office, with the US president describing the prime minister as the “right man for the job” of delivering Brexit.
Mr Trump also promised a “very big trade deal” between the US and UK.
The prime minister told Sky News the White House is “certainly very ambitious to do a deal as fast as possible” but would not commit to a US-UK agreement being signed within a year.
“I have long experience of the Americans as trade negotiators,” said Mr Johnson.
“They are formidable and we will get a great deal, we will get a great deal, but it may take some time.”
Author: Greg Heffer