No-deal Brexit will be ‘wonderful’, Boris Johnson insists, as prospects of an agreement fade

France and Germany refuse direct talks – with just two days left for a breakthrough – and PM admits crash-out departure now ‘very likely’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
@Rob_Merrick
Friday 11 December 2020 18:13
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Boris Johnson says no-deal Brexit ‘looking very, very likely’

Boris Johnson claimed a no-deal Brexit would be “wonderful” as the EU agreed it was now the most likely outcome – and the bloc’s leaders refused to take the prime minister’s phone calls.

With just two days left for a breakthrough, relations between the two sides instead appeared to be deteriorating as they remained far apart on the flashpoints of fair competition rules and fishing rights.

In Brussels, the prime minister was strongly criticised for attempting to bypass the European Commission by offering to fly to Paris and Berlin for talks with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.

It was revealed that both the French president and German chancellor had also snubbed him by refusing a three-way call on Monday – and Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, lashed out at the tactic.

“I would like to invite him to stay in London and work hard. Capitals don’t negotiate, [Michel] Barnier does, and he has our full support,” Mr Rutte said at an EU summit.

He also made clear the looming divorce was not the EU’s number one concern – as the bloc agreed tougher climate emergency targets. A Brexit discussion at the summit had lasted only eight minutes, he said.

Visiting the northeast, Mr Johnson ignored official forecasts that a no-deal Brexit will swipe £40bn from the UK economy, putting 300,000 people out of work, and warnings of higher food prices.

Describing the outcome as now “very, very likely” – having dismissed the chances as a “million-to-one against” last year – he said it was “a solution that I think would be wonderful for the UK”.

The gloomy picture leaves Mr Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, and his UK counterpart David Frost until only Sunday to somehow bridge the divide between them.

Then, Mr Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, will speak again – and pull up stumps on the negotiations if they believe there is no prospect of them succeeding.

Despite a few senior Tory MPs expressing alarm, the vast majority are believed to be fully behind a no-deal Brexit if necessary. Many are eager for it, blaming the EU for the impasse.

The UK would then have to decide whether to accept the “mini-deals” proposed by Brussels – to keep planes in the air and lorries with food and medicines rolling – but at the price of the competition rules the EU is demanding.

There is a real risk of clashes in the Channel over fish, where the UK is already bolstering its defences with four royal navy ships as the EU seeks continued access to the stocks-rich waters.

Mr Macron, under pressure from French fishermen, said he would not give up his share of those fish, after the one-year standstill plan was put forward – and rejected by London.

“I'm not asking to have my cake and eat it, no. All I want is a cake that’s worth its weight. Because I won’t give up my share of it either,” he said.

Ms Von der Leyen warned the two sides “remain apart on fundamental issues”, but argued London was wrong to see so-called level playing field rules – to prevent the UK undercutting the EU – as an attack on its “sovereignty”.

“This is not to say that we would require the UK to follow us every time we decide to raise our level of ambition, for example, in the environmental field,” she insisted.

“They would remain free – sovereign if you wish – to decide what they want to do. We would simply set the conditions for access to our market.”

But the olive branch was quickly rejected by No 10, whose spokesperson said: “I would say there isn’t anything new here.

“Because they still say they would adapt the conditions they place on us for access. And our position on sovereignty remains unchanged.”

In Northumberland, the prime minister was challenged over his now-notorious claim that his withdrawal deal would “Get Brexit Done” – when it did not cover the crucial task of securing a trade agreement.

He was reminded that, when asked about future trade, he replied that “we have got an oven-ready deal”. An ITV reporter said: “You haven’t got a deal. Will you apologise for the people that voted for you?”

But the prime minister said: “You’re muddling up two things,” insisting that getting Brexit done had meant formally leaving the bloc last January only.

France and Germany’s rejection of direct talks was attacked by Imran Ahmad Khan, the Conservative MP for Wakefield, who said: “I stand with millions of Britons that are deeply insulted at the shocking news that the German chancellor has refused the British prime minister’s request for a telephone call.

“This is an insult to every Briton, whether they support our PM or not.”

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