Johnson offers to work with opponents to heal divisions of Brexit
Boris Johnson has held out an olive branch to his defeated political opponents with an offer to find common ground to heal the divisions of Brexit.
On the first day of sitting of the new Parliament, the Prime Minister said he wanted finally to end the wrangling over Britain’s departure from the EU.
However, his conciliatory message was overshadowed by a furious row over plans by ministers to legislate to prevent any extension to the Brexit transition period beyond the end of 2020.
Opposition parties said his “reckless” approach opened up the renewed risk of a “cliff edge” no-deal Brexit in just 12 months’ time.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Johnson said: “After three-and-a-half years of wrangling and division, we in this Government will do whatever we can to reach out across the House to find common ground, to heal the divisions of our country, and to find a new and generous spirit in which we conduct all our political dealings.”
Earlier however, he struck a more bullish note, telling the first Cabinet meeting since his election triumph they needed to work “flat out” to deliver on their campaign promises, including Brexit.
He pledged to keep up the “frenetic” pace of his first five months in office, telling ministers: “You ain’t seen nothing yet, folks.”
The Government is expected to introduce the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) in the Commons on Thursday following the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech.
MPs will then vote on the principle of the Bill – ratifying Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal with Brussels in October – at second reading on Friday before the House rises for Christmas.
Ministers want the legislation to clear all its stages in the Commons and the Lords in January to enable Britain to leave with a deal in place at the end of the month as planned.
However, the Bill has been reworked to “legally prohibit” any extension of the transition period which then follows beyond the end of 2020.
The option of an extension was originally included to allow talks to continue on a new free trade agreement if – as many expect – they have not been concluded by the end of the year.
Opposition parties said that by taking that away, Mr Johnson was effectively reopening the prospect of an economically damaging no-deal break.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: “This is typical of the reckless and irresponsible behaviour we have come to expect from Boris Johnson’s Government.
“The Tories have shown once again that they are prepared to put people’s jobs at risk in pursuit of a hard Brexit.”
Acting Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “This Tory Government’s reckless approach to Brexit will send the country straight off the no-deal cliff.
“The only way Johnson can meet the December 2020 timetable is by giving up all his previous promises to Leave voters and agreeing to all the demands of the EU.”
In Brussels, the European Commission’s director general for trade Sabine Weyand – previously the deputy to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier – said the Government’s warnings should be taken seriously.
She reportedly suggested that only a pared down agreement on Britain’s future relationship with the EU may now be possible.
“I think, given all the signals we are getting, and now these signals are translated into law, that we are well advised to take seriously that the UK doesn’t intend to go for an extension of the transition, and we need to be prepared for that,” she was quoted as saying.
“And that means in the negotiations we have to look at those issues where failure to reach an agreement by (the) end (of) 2020 would lead to a cliff-edge situation.”
The Prime Minister repeatedly promised during the election campaign that he would not seek any extension to the transition period.
The commitment was instrumental in persuading Nigel Farage not to stand Brexit Party candidates in Conservative-held seats.
However, after Mr Johnson was returned with an unexpectedly large majority, there had been speculation he could use his strengthened position to seek an extension if more time was needed to get a trade deal.