Brexit: Boris Johnson to open trade talks with Ursula von der Leyen
Boris Johnson will host the president of the European commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, in Downing Street this week as he prepares to take Britain out of the EU at the end of this month, kicking off a race against time to secure a free trade deal.
The prime minister will use the comfortable majority he won at last month’s general election to press his Brexit bill through the House of Commons in three days when MPs return to Westminster on Tuesday.
He is expected to use his meeting with Von Der Leyen to underscore the government’s determination not to extend the transition period, which will mean the UK remains subject to many EU rules and structures until the end of December.
Johnson’s promise to “get Brexit done” was the centrepiece of his general election campaign, and his senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, has made clear that the government intends to use it as an opportunity for a radical shakeup of the state.
Cummings wrote in a blog last week that he hopes to recruit a crack team of “weirdos and misfits” to No 10. He said Brexit would require “large changes in policy and in the structure of decision-making” and the fact that the government had a comfortable majority meant there was “little need to worry about short-term unpopularity while trying to make rapid progress with long-term problems”.
The government reconvened parliament after December’s election so that the withdrawal agreement bill could pass its second reading before Christmas.
Aside from the new Northern Ireland protocol that Johnson negotiated, the detail of the legislation was similar to Theresa May’s Brexit bill, although a clause was added to prevent ministers extending the 31 December 2020 end date for the transition period.
That means Johnson’s chief negotiator in Brussels, David Frost, will face the challenge of securing a free trade agreement that could come into force at the end of the year, something senior Brussels figures have suggested is all but impossible.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, told MEPs last month: “It is unrealistic that a global negotiation can be done in 11 months, so we can’t do it all. We will do all we can to get what I call the ‘vital minimum’ to establish a relationship with the UK if that is the timescale.”
Johnson will also have to make a decision imminently about whether to open negotiations on a bilateral trade deal with the US this year, at the same time as rushing to complete an EU agreement.
The international trade secretary, Liz Truss, is urging him to conduct the negotiations simultaneously, in the hope that this approach will give the UK greater leverage.
The government hopes that the Brexit bill will clear its remaining Commons stages by the end of Thursday’s sitting. It will then pass to the House of Lords.
Peers inflicted a string of defeats on Theresa May’s government over Brexit, but Johnson’s 80-strong majority means he should be able to overturn any amendments he considers problematic when it returns to the House of Commons.
Labour sources in the Lords are not optimistic of achieving anything but tweaks to the legislation. Nor do opposition amendments in the Commons have much hope of success.
Northern Ireland parties, however, including the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) and the Alliance, have made a rare agreement to table amendments jointly, calling for the government to ensure unfettered access to the British market.
Johnson has promised that Northern Ireland businesses will face “no barriers of any kind”, even telling exporters during the election campaign that if they were asked to fill in any paperwork, they should contact him and he would tell them to throw them in the bin.
A leaked government report revealed by Labour during the campaign suggests, however, that there are profound concerns about the potential economic impact of the effective border down the Irish Sea created by the new protocol.
The Alliance MP Stephen Farry, the party’s deputy leader, tweeted: “We all retain our different perspectives on the wisdom of Brexit and the Johnson deal. But there is common ground on how to try to protect NI economy in the context we have been given.”
Johnson is unlikely to be defeated over any such amendments, but he may face political pressure to accept them given that they reflect pledges he has made publicly.
Labour has warned about the threat of a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020, and is expected to table an amendment that would extend the transition period by two years if the government were to fail to reach a free trade agreement by June.
Moderate Conservatives, including Philip Hammond and David Gauke, had expressed similar concerns, but they and many other dissenting voices on Brexit were swept away in the general election and replaced by Johnson loyalists.