On his first full day in office, the Prime Minister signalled his readiness to thrash out a new exit deal shorn of the toxic “backstop” proposal. While promising to negotiate with Brussels chiefs “in the spirit of friendship”, he stressed that the UK would quit the EU without a deal if the bloc refused to make the crucial concession. But his stance was immediately criticised by EU diplomat Michel Barnier, who branded it as “combative”.
Mr Johnson was also warned, in a telephone call from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, that EU chiefs regarded Theresa May’s Brexit deal as “the best and only agreement possible”.
As he made his debut in the Commons despatch box, Mr Johnson yesterday told MPs that the UK could withhold the £39billion “divorce fee” if no deal was forthcoming and use the cash to protect Britain from the impact.
Mr Johnson said: “In the 98 days that remain to us, we must turbo-charge our preparations (for no-deal) to make sure that there is as little disruption as possible to our national life.
“In these circumstances we would, of course, also have available the £39billion in the Withdrawal Agreement to help deal with any consequences.”
Mr Johnson yesterday invited EU leaders to meet him and newly reappointed EU Exit Secretary Stephen Barclay for talks “whenever they are ready to do so”.
But officials on both sides were bracing for a nerve-jangling stand-off as the October 31 Brexit deadline looms. “For our part, we will throw ourselves into these negotiations with the greatest energy and determination in the spirit of friendship,” Mr Johnson said.
“And I hope the EU will be equally ready and that they will rethink their current refusal to make any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.
“If they do not, we will, of course, have to leave the EU without an agreement under Article 50.” Mr Barnier yesterday dismissed Mr Johnson’s ultimatum in a message to the leaders of the EU nations.
He wrote: “PM Johnson has stated that if an agreement is to be reached, it goes by way of eliminating the backstop.
“This is, of course, unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European Council.”
Mr Barnier said Brussels would analyse solutions compatible with the existing Withdrawal Agreement and reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to rework the declaration covering future trade deals. But the Brussels diplomat said the 27 EU member states would “have to be ready” for a situation where Mr Johnson started planning for no-deal, which would “heap pressure on the unity” of the other nations.
In his speech in the Commons, Mr Johnson told MPs that Britain was “better prepared” for a no-deal Brexit than many believe.
He confirmed his former leadership rival Michael Gove had been tasked with co-ordinating the preparations across Whitehall and told how Chancellor Sajid Javid had “confirmed that all necessary funding” would be made available for a no-deal Brexit.
A European Commission spokeswoman confirmed that Mr Juncker and Mr Johnson had spoken on the phone yesterday.
“President Juncker congratulated Prime Minister Johnson on his appointment, and reaffirmed his commitment to working together in the best possible way,” she said.
“President Juncker reiterated that the Commission remains available over the coming weeks should the United Kingdom wish to hold talks and clarify its position in more detail.”