In Depth

Brexit: what’s the mood in Westminster ahead of Boris Johnson’s 11th-hour showdown with EU?

Prime minister is meeting with European Commission chief Ursula Von Der Leyen

As Boris Johnson gears up for a make-or-break dinner with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tonight, speculation abounds over whether either side will be willing to swallow concessions to secure a future trade deal.

With time running out before the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December, the UK and the EU are still wrangling over fishing rights, the level playing field (LPF) and the governance of any treaty agreed

So will the prime minister walk if the bloc refuses to budge? Or could he, as an unnamed cabinet minister suggested to The Sun, be forced to dine on a “menu of climbdowns”?

Red lines

Eurosceptic members of the Conservative Party have drawn red lines on a series of issues surrounding the UK’s sovereinty, including the three that threaten to sink negotiations.

But with just weeks to go until Britain crashes out of the EU, some members of the hard-line European Research Group (ERG) have hinted that they may be willing to accept a deal if Johnson can secure certain concessions at today’s talks.

In comments that will be “welcomed by Downing Street”, some of the arch-Brexiteers have said they are willing to be flexible on the level playing field if the two sides agree a “commitment not to lower standards below the current baseline”, The Telegraph reports.

Yet despite this apparent offer of wriggle room, Ben Harris-Quinney, chair of the right-wing Bow Group think tank, insists the position of Brexiteers “hasn’t really changed throughout” the negotiations and is unlikely to shift now. 

“The ERG Brexiteers will absolutely round on Boris if he breaches the red lines, and are very happy to push for a no-deal Brexit,” he told the Daily Express.

United front

The PM can still count on having plenty of backers, however, after cabinet ministers from both sides of the Brexit divide “last night insisted Johnson had their full support and latitude to make a call, deal or no deal”, according to Politico’s London Playbook Emilio Casalicchio.

But some senior figures have remained bullish ahead of the crunch talks.

Michael Gove told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that there could be a compromise on fishing rights, but insisted that the UK could not back down from being an “independent coastal state”.

“I think there can be scope for compromise but the compromise exists on the way in which European boats can continue to access UK waters,” he said. “But what is not up for compromise is the principle that the UK will be an independent coastal state, and it will be a matter for negotiation between the UK and the EU.”

No compromise, no deal

As the clock ticks down, the mood in Westminster among those hoping for a deal is bleak.

A UK official told reporters last night that “it’s clear that some political impetus will be required for the talks to make any more progress”.

“We must be realistic that an agreement may not be possible as we will not compromise on reclaiming UK sovereignty,” the government source added.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has also struck a pessimistic tone, after reportedly telling MEPs that the deadline for finalising a deal is today. 

According to sources, Barnier warned EU ministers at a private meeting yesterday that “we are close to the moment of needing urgent measures which means a contingency plan for no deal”, The Guardian reports.

“The basis of our future cooperation with the UK is more important than rushing now,” the negotiating chief continued. “We cannot sacrifice our long-term interests for short-term political goals.”

In the wake of Barnier’s warning, a UK government source “said the two sides were too far apart for a deal to be struck tonight”, reports the Daily Mail

“If they strike out and make no progress then that is going to be it,” the insider predicted. “There is no point carrying on for the sake of it.”

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