Tory leadership race: Dutch prime minister knocks down Brexit promises of contenders one by one

Mark Rutte also claims UK will be 'diminished' as a country under any type of Brexit

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Thursday 20 June 2019 10:12 BST
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte says renegotiation of the Brexit deal unrealistic

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has dismissed central Brexit promises from the remaining Tory leadership contenders, as he claimed the UK will be a "diminished" country after leaving the EU.

In a sobering interview for the four candidates vying for the Conservative crown, Mr Rutte rejected proposals such as a renegotiation of Theresa May's withdrawal agreement, and a time-limit to the contentious Irish backstop.

His intervention comes ahead of the final round of voting in the parliamentary stage of the contest to replace Theresa May, with Boris Johnson maintaining a clear lead over his rivals.

By Thursday evening, the ex-foreign secretary will be joined by one other rival - either Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, or Sajid Javid - to go ahead to a ballot of Conservative Party members in July.

Mr Johnson has pledged in the contest to reopen the withdrawal agreement and ditch the backstop, promising to take the "good bits" from the existing deal and negotiate "alternative arrangements" to the Irish insurance policy during the transition period.

But Mr Rutte replied "no" when asked if there was any realistic prospect of a renegotiation of the deal before the Brexit deadline of 31 October. "What we could do is look together, collectively again at the political agreement which is below the withdrawal agreement - the political declaration," he said.

Any extension, he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, would require the future prime minister to outline his plan, "in terms of new elections, new referendums, making changes to the red lines" the UK currently has.

"If nothing is happening, it would mean after 31 October again going through the rounds - then there is no point in having an extension," he said.

On the suggestion of negotiating a time-limit to the backstop, he went on: "Let's go through that idea - you have a time limit on the backstop. That means in four, five, six years time if there is no other solution for the border issue, and I don't think we'll be able to have anything in place in four, fix, six years. Purely technically, and logistically.

"It will be a hard border in your scenario in four, five years. And do we want that? I don't think so because this is the end of the Good Friday Agreement."

And he also made clear that there could not be a transition period if the UK leaves the bloc without a deal, saying: "As Boris Johnson would say, Brexit is Brexit. I would say a hard Brexit is a hard Brexit. I don't see how you can sweeten it."

Pressed whether he is prepared to have a no-deal Brexit, he continued: "No, I hate it. I hate Brexit from every angle, I hate a no-deal Brexit from every angle.

"With a hard Brexit - even with a normal Brexit - the UK will be a different country, it will be a diminished country. It is unavoidable because you are no longer part of European Union, and you are not big enough to have important enough position on the world stage."

Conservative leadership bid: Results of third ballot

Mr Rutte's comments followed Philip Hammond, the chancellor, warning leadership contenders to set out a Brexit "Plan B" in case their plans falter.

In a speech in the City of London, he will say later today: "It may be that I'm wrong, and a new leader will persuade parliament to accept the deal it has already rejected, or that the European Union does a 180-degree U-turn and re-opens the withdrawal agreement."

In a hint at the possibility of a second referendum, he will add: "If the new prime minister cannot end the deadlock in Parliament, then he will have to explore other democratic mechanisms to break the impasse.

"Because if he fails, his job will be on the line - and so, too, will the jobs and prosperity of millions of our fellow citizens."

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