Belfast Telegraph

Johnson ‘very confident’ MPs will back Brexit deal

The PM said he hopes Parliament will approve the deal on Saturday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the European Council summit in Brussels (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the European Council summit in Brussels (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

By Sam Blewett, PA Political Correspondent, in Brussels

Boris Johnson has said he is “very confident” MPs will back his last-minute Brexit deal despite the Democratic Unionist Party ruling out its support.

The Prime Minister urged parliamentarians to “come together and get this thing done” after EU leaders approved the departure agreement hammered out shortly before the key summit began on Thursday.

Mr Johnson faces an uphill battle to get the deal backed during an extraordinary sitting of Parliament on Saturday, after his key and influential allies in the DUP rejected it.

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Mr Johnson appealed to those in Northern Ireland as well as across party lines in order to encourage support for the deal.

“I am very confident that when my colleagues in Parliament study this agreement that they will want to vote for it on Saturday and in succeeding days,” he said.

“We’ve been at this now, as I say, for three and a half years. It hasn’t always been an easy experience for the UK. It’s been long, it’s been painful, it’s been divisive.

“And now is the moment for us as a country to come together. Now is the moment for our parliamentarians to come together and get this thing done.”

Appealing to Arlene Foster’s party, he insisted the country can leave the bloc “as one United Kingdom” and “decide our future together”.

EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker piled the pressure on MPs to back the deal in the parliamentary showdown by raising doubts over any further delay to the UK’s departure past October 31.

Following days of intense negotiations, the PM announced that he had struck a “great new deal” shortly before heading to the Brussels meeting.

But it must still be passed by a Parliament which has so far proved hostile to both Brexit and Mr Johnson.

The DUP, which has been in regular talks with the PM, cited a series of objections over the integrity of the union and Northern Ireland’s economy during its emphatic dismissal.

The deal also “drives a coach and horses” through the Good Friday peace agreement over the issue of consent, a strongly-worded statement from the party said.

While Taoiseach Leo Varadkar defended the deal as upholding the Irish peace treaty, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds was highly critical of Mr Johnson.

“He has been too eager by far to get a deal at any cost, and the fact of the matter is, if he held his nerve and held out he would, of course, have got better concessions that kept the integrity, both economic and constitutionally, of the United Kingdom,” Mr Dodds said.

Turning up the pressure, Mr Juncker told reporters “there will be no prolongation”, after holding a face-to-face discussion with the PM.

“We have concluded a deal and so there is not an argument for further delay – it has to be done now,” he added.

However, whether any requested extension is granted is not down to Mr Juncker – it requires the consent of the 27 remaining members of the European Council.

And European Council president Donald Tusk expressed his “sadness” at the UK’s exit and said “our door will always be open” if it wants to return to the bloc, a sentiment echoed by Mr Varadkar.

MPs are expected to hold a meaningful debate on the deal on Saturday after MPs on Thursday approved a motion to hold the first weekend sitting of Parliament in 37 years.

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(PA Graphics)

Mr Johnson did not rule out suspending the whip from Tories who rebelled on Saturday, or whether he would welcome back the 21 he exiled for previously voting against his will.

“What I will say is I do think there is a very good case for voting for this deal on all sides of the House and we will certainly be taking that vote very seriously,” he added when questioned at the press conference.

If Parliament does not vote for the agreement on Saturday, he faces an almighty clash over whether he will request a further Brexit delay from Brussels as he is compelled to under the Benn Act.

The stance of the DUP is particularly important because the party wields influence over some hardline Tory Brexiteers and Mr Johnson is far short of a majority in Parliament.

The PM insisted the “great new deal” allows the UK to leave the bloc in the nick of time to satisfy his “do or die” commitment to depart by the current October 31 deadline.

Mr Johnson said that the “anti-democratic” backstop contingency measure to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland had been abolished.

It proved a major sticking point for his predecessor Theresa May whose deal failed to pass the Commons three times.

But the DUP dug in over the prospect of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, as well as the issues of consent regarding the suspended Stormont Assembly.

Another issue in the PM’s proposals was whether EU VAT rates would apply in Northern Ireland.

Mr Johnson needs to get a deal approved before the weekend if he is to avoid a major clash over asking for an extension to the current deadline.

The Benn Act passed by no-deal opponents compels him to ask Brussels for a delay to the end of January, but the PM has repeatedly ruled out taking this course of action.

He remains adamant on his stance, with a senior Government official saying the PM’s position is “new deal or no deal, but no delay”.

Mr Juncker’s no-delay threat could convince some opposition MPs to back what would now appear to be the final offer.

Jeremy Corbyn was quick to dismiss the PM’s agreement, criticising it for creating a customs border in the Irish sea.

“As it stands we cannot support this deal,” the Labour leader told reporters in Brussels.

Mr Corbyn criticised “speculation” when asked about reports that his party could support the deal if it comes with a second referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon also ruled out her MPs in the SNP backing the deal, insisting it will mean Scotland alone is “treated unfairly” when the UK leaves.

Mr Johnson is likely to attend the dinner with EU leaders before returning to the UK to miss the second day of the summit.

PA

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