Boris Johnson has told MPs he has made a “genuine attempt to bridge the chasm” with the EU by making compromises to strike a fresh Brexit deal.
The prime minister told the Commons on Thursday that his proposals do not deliver all his departure desires, but he insisted they are better options than to “remain a prisoner” of the current situation.
Still, he acknowledged in his statement a day after he shared his proposals with Brussels that they are “some way from a resolution”.
The PM appears to be building support from the DUP, eurosceptics within his own party and some opposition MPs wishing to avert a no-deal.
But Jeremy Corbyn branded Johnson’s proposal worse than Theresa May’s thrice-rejected deal and warned his own backbenchers not to vote with the PM.
The Labour leader said Johnson was proposing a “Trump deal Brexit” that would damage regulatory standards.
“No Labour MP could support such a reckless deal that will be used as a springboard to attack rights and standards in this country,” he said.
In his statement, Johnson urged MPs to “come together in the national interest behind this new deal”. First he must get it passed by the EU, however, with reactions from European leaders so far being cool.
“This government’s objective has always been to leave with a deal, and these constructive and reasonable proposals show our seriousness of purpose,” the PM said.
“They do not deliver everything that we would’ve wished, they do represent a compromise, but to remain a prisoner of existing positions is to become a cause of deadlock rather than breakthrough.
“So we have made a genuine attempt to bridge the chasm, to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable and to go the extra mile as time runs short.”
He set out his plan to resolve the contentious issue of the Irish backstop in a letter to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday.
Johnson followed this up with a phone call to Juncker and held further discussions with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The PM’s attempt to compromise by keeping Northern Ireland tied to single-market rules for trade in goods while leaving the customs union with the rest of the UK may not be enough for the EU.
Juncker and Varadkar both expressed concern that the return of customs controls threatened the Good Friday Agreement’s guarantee to maintain an open border with the Republic.
Varadkar said the proposals “do not fully meet the agreed objectives” of the backstop, while Juncker said there were some “problematic points”.
The PM said his proposals had been driven by the need to “protect” and “fortify” the peace agreement, as he ruled out the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
But even if he gets the support of EU leaders for a deal, he must get it through a parliament that has so far been hostile to Brexit proposals.
European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told reporters that “we have many questions on the text” of the Brexit proposal.
“We have pointed out that there are problematic points so, yes, we have questions and these need to be answered by the UK and not the other way around,” she added.
Nationalists in Northern Ireland have expressed anger over a proposal requiring the suspended Stormont Assembly to approve the new arrangements, with a vote every four years.
Sinn Fein argued that it would effectively hand a veto to Johnson’s allies, the DUP, which have a majority in the assembly.
Under the plan, the arrangements would start in 2021 at the end of the proposed transition period if there was no long-term trade agreement at that point and would continue until one was in place.
An explanatory note from the government said a system of declarations for goods traded between the North and the Republic would mean only a “very small proportion” would be subject to physical customs checks.
When they were necessary, it said that they would take place well away from the border, at the traders’ premises or other designated locations.
At the same time, the plan proposes a “zone of regulatory compliance” covering the entire island of Ireland, tying the North to EU rules for the trade in manufactured goods and agri-food products.