In Depth

Does Boris Johnson’s Brexit treaty backtracking make no-deal more likely?

Senior Tories warn PM against ‘watering down’ EU withdrawal treaty - but Downing Street remains ‘bullish’

Britain “can now move forward as one country”, putting an end to years of “argument and division” while “building a strong new relationship with the EU as friends and sovereign equals”.

Back in January, Boris Johnson was all smiles as he put pen to paper on the Brexit withdrawal agreement. But fast-forward nine months and that optimistic tone has aged like a glass of milk. 

Following shock reports that the prime minister plans to row back on elements of the divorce deal, Johnson will tell EU leaders today that the protocol is “contradictory”. But senior Tory MPs are warning that the likely outcome of reneging on the agreement is a no-deal exit from the bloc.

‘Never made sense’

The withdrawal agreement signed in January was largely brokered by Theresa May, but was not voted through the House of Commons until Johnson won further concessions from the EU following the Conservatives’  landslide victory in the December election.

However, Johnson now believes the agreement is “legally ambiguous and would leave Northern Ireland isolated from the rest of the UK”, The Telegraph reports.

All the same, the leaking of his plans to backtrack on the deal is understood to have caught Downing Street on the backfoot. Sources told the Financial Times that the UK Internal Markets Bill, due to be tabled tomorrow, would “eliminate the legal force of parts of the withdrawal agreement”.

The government has launched an internal inquiry to track down the source of the leak, as Johnson scrambles to get ahead of the news.  

The reports have “triggered a major row between London and Brussels”, says The Telegraph, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatened to refuse to do business with Britain if “trust” is broken over the agreement.

With friends like these...

Leaked EU cables seen by The Guardian reveal that trust in the UK has already “plummeted” following the disclosure of Johnson’s plan. 

According to messages sent to European capitals from Brussels in recent days, “Johnson is suspected of holding back on finding a compromise on the key outstanding issues” surrounding Brexit, in the hope of winning a last-minute “trade-off”, the newspaper reports.

“The revelations provide the worst possible backdrop to the latest round of negotiations”, The Guardian adds, after the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost said on Monday that the two sides “must make progress this week if we are to reach an agreement in time”.

Amid “growing unease” on the Tory backbenches over Johnson’s approach, senior party figures have warned the PM that his plans to “water down Britain’s obligations under the EU withdrawal agreement” are a “dangerous step” that made a no-deal Brexit more likely, says The Times.

The One Nation group of moderate Tory MPs met last night and reportedly remain “alarmed by the strategy”. One of moderates told the newspaper that rowing back on the treaty “would clearly have some real issues in terms of our status as a country”. 

“If we breach an international agreement it will affect our ability to do deals with others. The ramifications of doing this are serious,” the unnamed MP added.

‘No time, no deal’

With the clock ticking down on negotiations, manufacturers and businesses are also worried about the potential fallout from Johnson’s blueprint.

Confederation of British Industry (CBI) deputy director general Josh Hardie yesterday reminded ministers that “amid all the noise and negotiations, businesses in the UK and EU remain clear – a good deal is essential”. 

That message was echoed by Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), who said a “no deal would be the worst outcome for consumers” and would add “hundreds of millions of pounds in tariffs to the cost of the food in British supermarkets”.

With the leaked EU cables revealing the extent of the diplomatic damage caused, concerns are also growing that the bloc might mount a legal challenge over a breach of the agreement. 

A dispute “would trigger a specific legal process” ending in the European Court of Justice, says The Guardian’s Brexit correspondent Lisa O’Carroll. “And if the UK was found to have breached the international treaty it signed in January, the EU has powers to punish the country.”

“Because the agreement is an international treaty, the EU could bring proceedings against the UK, under the dispute resolution mechanism of the agreement,” adds Catherine Barnard, a European law professor at Cambridge University.

Meanwhile, The Times’ Rachel Sylvester warns that Johnson’s “no-deal brinkmanship” is “damaging Britain’s reputation abroad just when we need new allies”.

“Ministers were yesterday downplaying the significance of new clauses in the Internal Market Bill, but the timing of their publication is at the very least provocative,” Syvlester says. 

“Perhaps the prime minister will swoop in with a last-minute concession, as he did last year, but in terms of the country’s reputation abroad it may be too late.”

We see through EU

Allies of the PM are more optimistic about the plan, with government insiders remaining “bullish” even as no-deal looks like the most likely outcome, according to The Telegraph’s associate editor Camilla Tominey

One “well-placed source” told the paper that while the plan may damage Britain’s reputation, “our international standing will be even more reduced if we cannot govern ourselves”.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis predicts that negotiations “will get tenser and tenser, and suddenly there will be a last-minute breakthrough in the middle of the night”.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has sounded a note of caution, however. Jenrick told Times Radio today that the government was willing to leave without a deal, but urged EU negotiators to show “flexibility” in the coming weeks.

Referencing the plan to ditch elements of the withdrawal agreement ahead of the negotiation’s conclusion, Jenrick added that “it wouldn’t be responsible for us not to prepare” for no-deal.

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