POLITICS
13/12/2020 13:32 GMT

Cautious Boris Johnson Dampens Brexit Deal Hopes Despite Extending Talks

The PM talks up the “clarity and simplicity” of no deal despite agreeing to continue negotiations.

Boris Johnson has dampened hopes that a Brexit deal could be close by insisting the UK and EU are “still very far apart” on key issues.

The prime minister agreed with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday to extend negotiations, raising hopes a free trade agreement could be close.

But Johnson’s tone was markedly more downbeat that von der Leyen, as he warned of “serious and very, very difficult issues” remaining in the talks.

The PM also said that “the most likely thing” was that “we have to get ready” to default to World Trade Organisation terms from January 1, widely predicted to be the most damaging outcome.

But in a sign that there may still be room to compromise, Johnson repeatedly refused to say whether or not there had been political movement from the EU on the sticking points.

Following a call with cabinet ministers, he told broadcasters: “As things stand, and this is basically what Ursula and I agreed, I’m afraid we’re still very far apart on some key things.

“But where there’s life, there’s hope.

“We’re going to keep talking to see what we can do, the UK certainly won’t be walking away from the talks, I think people expect us to go the extra mile.”

Johnson also revealed that his call to speak with EU leaders like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron individually was again rebuffed by von der Leyen, who is demanding all negotiations go through the Commission.

Von der Leyen raised hopes of a deal earlier by saying she had a “constructive and useful” phone conversation on Sunday with Johnson.

But the PM said: “Look, if Ursula is optimistic then that is great… but as far as I can see there are some serious and very, very difficult issues that currently separate the UK from the EU and the best thing to do now for everybody is to follow up all the work that has been done over the last four-and-a-half years, a colossal amount of preparation at our ports, everywhere across the UK, get ready to trade on WTO terms.

“And there is a clarity and a simplicity in that approach that has its own advantages.

“It is not where we wanted to get to, but if we have to end up with that solution, the UK is more than prepared.”

Earlier, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said there is “a long way to go” to find a resolution on fisheries and so-called level playing field “ratchet” clause, which could see either side punished with trade tariffs if they do not bring their standards in areas like the environment up to the level of the other.

Johnson said: “We’re going to continue to try and we’re going to try with all our hearts and be as creative as we possibly can, but what we can’t do is compromise on that fundamental nature of what Brexit is all about which is us being able to control our laws, control our fisheries, it’s very, very simple.

“I think our friends get it, and we remain willing to talk and will continue to do so.

“But in the meantime let’s get ready for the WTO option, and that’s what I told the cabinet.”

Talks between UK chief negotiator Lord Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier were resuming on Sunday.