Brexit: EU will be guilty of 'historic misunderstanding' if it thinks Benn Act will delay UK's departure, Downing Street claims

PM issues ultimatum as hopes of a Brexit deal hang in the balance

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Sunday 06 October 2019 23:59
What does a no-deal Brexit mean?

Boris Johnson has warned the EU that his plans are the final opportunity to avert no deal as his hopes of securing a Brexit agreement stood on a knife edge.

Ahead of a critical week, the prime minister issued an ultimatum to the French president Emmanuel Macron and said Brussels must not be lured into the mistaken belief that Brexit will be delayed beyond 31 October.

A senior No 10 source said it would be a ”historic misunderstanding” for the EU to place its faith in the Benn Act – a backbench law designed to force Mr Johnson to delay Brexit if he has not struck a deal by 19 October.

The prime minister spent the weekend talking to European leaders as negotiations stood on the brink, after his new Brexit blueprint received a lukewarm response in Brussels.

European leaders have been careful not to publicly dismiss the plans but both Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, and Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said important questions remain unanswered.

In a telephone call with the French premier on Sunday, Mr Johnson was said to have made clear it was the final opportunity to agree a deal and insisted the EU must compromise, as he claimed the UK had done.

A No 10 source said: “This is the chance to get a deal done: a deal that is backed by parliamentarians and a deal which involves compromise on all sides.

“The UK has made a big, important offer but it’s time for the commission to show a willingness to compromise too. If not the UK will leave with no deal.

“The surrender act and its authors are undermining negotiations, but if EU leaders are betting that it will prevent no deal, that would be a historic misunderstanding.”

But an Elysee official told Reuters: “The president told [Mr Johnson] that the negotiations should continue swiftly with Michel Barnier’s team in coming days, in order to evaluate at the end of the week whether a deal is possible that respects European Union principles.”

David Frost, the PM’s chief EU negotiator, will travel to Brussels on Monday, while Steve Barclay, the Brexit secretary, will visit a number of European capitals, ahead of the crucial EU summit on 17-18 October.

The prime minister had been expected to travel to Europe himself but plans for a whistle-stop diplomatic tour appear to have been put on ice.

It comes as:

  •  Tory cabinet minister Robert Jenrick said the government had “no plan” for what might happen if parliament blocks a no deal.
  •  Mr Barclay signalled the government could shift on its plan to offer Stormont a veto on its plans for an all-island regulatory system after Brexit.
  •  Tentative conversations were being held between Labour MPs and cabinet ministers over the PM’s deal as Mr Barclay said the government was ”considering” a Commons vote on the plan.
  • Labour’s Lisa Nandy said the prime minister was further away from getting a deal than ever – and branded his plans a “pre-election party political broadcast”.
  • But the prime minister declared he had growing support for his plan among MPs, who he was encouraged to discover were not “so recalcitrant” in supporting him.
  • Latvian prime minister Krisjanis Karins said the prospect of a deal by the end of the month was a “bit of a long shot”.

Mr Johnson’s bullish stance will ramp up pressure on opposition leaders, as squabbling parties meet to try to unite around a strategy to stop Mr Johnson from defying the law.

Cross-party talks stalled last week amid disagreements over who should lead an interim government if the prime minister is toppled in a no-confidence vote.

Speaking ahead of the meeting on Monday, Jeremy Corbyn said: “The cross-party meeting will decide what next steps we can take together to hold the government to account, and to ensure the prime minister adheres to the law in seeking an extension if no deal is reached by 19 October.”

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Meanwhile, Labour will try to force a parliamentary vote to demand the full legal text of the prime minister’s Brexit plan.

Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said: “The legal text is important because we suspect it will confirm that the government’s proposals unavoidably mean the introduction of infrastructure in Northern Ireland, and that this will contradict the assurances Johnson gave in the House on Thursday.

“We also think the text will show how the government plans to replace the current commitments to protect workers’ rights.”

It is understood that Downing Street is determined to only make the document public if it helps the negotiations.

Elsewhere, Scotland’s highest civil court is expected to deliver a verdict on whether the PM could be fined or even put in prison if he refuses to seek an extension from the EU.

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