Boris Johnson says he is ready to back Brexit backstop plan favoured by PM
Brexit figurehead Boris Johnson has said he is ready to back a compromise plan to salvage Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal.
But the former foreign secretary said his support was dependent on the PM making clear she will demand legally-binding commitments on the controversial Irish “backstop” in the text of her Withdrawal Agreement.
Brussels has been adamant that it will not reopen the Agreement, struck by Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and signed off by leaders of the remaining 27 EU states last November.
As MPs prepared for a crucial series of Commons votes which could shape the next phase of talks with the EU, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox indicated Mrs May was ready to reopen the Agreement in order to secure a legally-binding text.
He urged Tory MPs to give her a “strong mandate” by backing an amendment tabled by 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady which would replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements” to keep the Irish border open after Brexit.
Conservative MPs were informed on Monday evening that they would be whipped to vote for the amendment – assuming it is selected by Commons Speaker John Bercow.
Dr Fox gave a cool reception to a compromise deal put forward by housing minister Kit Malthouse which has won the support of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Drawn up by MPs from the Remain and Leave wings of the party co-ordinated by Mr Malthouse, the compromise recasts the backstop as “free trade agreement-lite”, with a commitment on all sides there should be no hard border in Ireland and an extended transition period to December 2021.
DUP leader Arlene Foster – whose 10 MPs prop up the minority Conservative administration in the Commons – said the plan provided a “feasible” alternative to the backstop.
“If the Prime Minister is seeking to find a united front, both between elements in her own party and the DUP, in the negotiations which she will enter with the European Union, then this is a proposition which she should not turn her back on.”
But asked about the Malthouse plan, Dr Fox said only: “There are all sorts of ideas being put out, but Parliament cannot take a decision unless it is on the order paper and it is not on the order paper.”
Mrs May’s hopes of gaining a Commons majority for the Brady amendment received an initial setback after Jacob-Rees-Mogg, the leader of the European Research Group (ERG), said its eurosceptic members were not prepared to support it.
But he later suggested that he could be prepared to support it if the amendment had official Government backing.
“If the Brady amendment is a Government amendment, effectively, that means the Withdrawal Agreement will be reopened,” Mr Rees-Mogg told the BBC. “That’s very different from a worthy backbench motion that doesn’t do anything.”
And Mr Johnson raised hopes of the amendment winning a majority in Tuesday evening’s votes by tweeting: “If the Prime Minister indicates in the debate that she will be pressing Brussels to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement to make changes to the backstop, I will gladly support the Brady amendment.”
But he insisted: “What we need is to achieve something legally binding – and that means part of the Withdrawal Agreement. We can’t have some codicil or letter or joint declaration.”
Both the EU and the Irish government have been adamant that there can be no question of reopening the Withdrawal Agreement.
Ireland’s European Affairs Minister, Helen McEntee, said: “There can be no change to the backstop. It was negotiated over 18 months with the UK and by the UK. A bit of realism is needed at this stage.”
But Dr Fox said he believed attitudes on the EU side on the need to find a compromise were changing in the light of the growing economic uncertainty.
“We have seen the German economy weakening, we have seen the French economy weakening,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I think this view – ‘We can simply weather out any disturbance that would occur from a no-deal’ – I think there is much less appetite for that. I think we still have time to reach a compromise on that.”
Dr Fox said that MPs’ backing for the Brady amendment would strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand.
“I think we should send the Prime Minister back to Brussels with a strong mandate to be able to say ‘If you compromise with us on this one issue, on the backstop, we would be able to a get an agreement – an agreement that is almost there’,” he said.
Remain-backing former Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan said discussions had been taking place for “some days” on the Malthouse plan between herself, health minister Stephen Hammond, and Solicitor General Robert Buckland on one side and Mr Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker from the ERG on the other.
“The Prime Minister has been aware of the discussions. At some point there has to be compromise on all sides in order to get a deal over the line. That is what most of us want to see – a negotiated settlement with the EU,” Ms Morgan told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“People like me want to avoid a no-deal outcome, a crashing out on March 29. We have to look for ways to do that. We are all prepared to compromise on that.”
Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, from the Brexiteer side, said the plan represented the “best hope” for the Conservatives.
“I really urge the Government to embrace this because what this will tell the European Union is that now, I believe, a majority of Parliament, particularly in the governing party, have agreed there are compromises to be made,” he said.