The battle for UK membership of the European Union is lost and the question will not be reopened for 20 years, Europhile former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine has said.
Lord Heseltine, who lost the Tory whip after urging people to vote against Conservatives to stop Brexit, played down the prospect of an immediate campaign to rejoin the EU, and said the focus must now be on ensuring that Boris Johnson’s withdrawal deal works for disadvantaged areas of the UK.
After securing a landslide majority in Thursday’s election, allowing him to “get Brexit done”, Mr Johnson was coming under pressure to strike a trade deal with Brussels that allows the UK to maximise commercial links by maintaining close alignment with EU regulations.
French president Emmanuel Macron has said that an ambitious deal will require “ambitious regulatory convergence”, while Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he expected Mr Johnson to accept EU standards on the environment and labour rights as the price for access to European markets. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen indicated that an agreement to be reached within Mr Johnson’s deadline of 31 December 2020 can only cover areas like goods, fisheries and security, with the vital services sector to be dealt with later.
And the TUC warned that Mr Johnson must be ready to take his time to secure a deal which will support jobs and workplace protections in the northern and midlands seats which secured his stunning victory over Labour. The PM was carrying out post-election visits in the north on Saturday to assure voters of his determination to spread opportunity across the UK.
But Donald Trump has said that a “far bigger and more lucrative” deal is on offer from the US if the UK breaks free of EU standards, and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has warned that Leavers will “reapply pressure” on the PM if he moves towards a “soft” outcome.
Lord Heseltine said the priority for pro-Europeans must now be to try to shape a future relationship with Europe which minimises the harm from Brexit.
“We have lost, let’s not muck about with the language,” he told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “Brexit is going to happen and we have to live with it.
“There will now be a long period of uncertainty, but we can’t escape from that, so we must do the best we can.”
Brushing off the prospect of an immediate campaign to rejoin, Lord Heseltine said: “I don’t think it’s gone, but it won’t be my generation. It will be 20 years or something before the thing is once again raised as an issue.”
The deputy general secretary of the TUC urged Boris Johnson to “put your money where your mouth is, engage with the unions, engage with working people” to get a Brexit deal that protects workers’ rights.
Paul Nowak said: “There are some contradictions in the prime minister’s position. He said before the election that he wants to protect and enhance employment rights, but if you look at that withdrawal bill, it delivers none of those protections.”
He added: “The government needs to now widen the conversation to include businesses, to include trade unions.
“And I think our message clearly to Boris Johnson would be to put people before politics, to deliver a Brexit deal that does protect jobs and employment rights and I think that means getting a right deal not just a quick deal – and I think it does mean standing by the commitments he’s made to those voters in the northeast and in the midlands who may have voted for the first time.”
Mr Nowak warned: “A deal that threatens jobs and people’s employment isn’t a deal that we can live with.”
Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts, a member of the European parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, said that a trade deal with zero tariffs would depend on whether the Conservative Party was able to “face up to its own contradictions”.
Mr Lamberts said: “They want the deepest possible access to the European single market, yet they want to undercut significantly EU legislation, and you can’t have both.
“So either you want total regulatory freedom and you do whatever you like – and if you want to undercut EU legislation then you do it, but then you lose access. Or you want access and you have basically to remain aligned with EU legislation, that will be the decision that Boris Johnson will need to make.”
He added: “If the United Kingdom wants to retain full access, including for services, that will have the adverse consequence that it has to remain aligned to EU legislation in services as well, and I understand that some in the government would want to deviate from that quite significantly.”
Mr Farage admitted that the influence on the prime minister of his Brexit Party and the European Research Group of backbench Tory Eurosceptics has “disappeared for the time being” as a result of Mr Johnson’s overwhelming victory.
But he vowed to be “not too far away from the action” as the UK’s new relationship with the EU takes shape.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, the architect of Brexit said: “Questions over the future shape of Brexit and Britain’s place in the world are now entirely in the hands of Johnson.
“With half of his cabinet having voted Remain, and substantial global pressures on him, it will be tempting for him to pursue the easy option of a soft Brexit.
“Whatever happens over the coming months, I will make sure I am not too far away from the action. The fact is that if Brexit does not ‘get done’, as Johnson has promised repeatedly over the last six weeks, pressure will have to be reapplied.”