Boris Johnson has admitted that the chances of a no-deal Brexit are “touch and go” as he warned that he could spend Theresa May’s £39bn divorce bill on domestic priorities instead.
In his first ever face-to-face meeting with EU council president Donald Tusk, the prime minister said that the UK would leave the 28-nation bloc on October 31 “whatever the circumstances”.
The 25-minute session in the margins of the G7 summit in France followed spats between Johnson and Tusk over which of them would be blamed as ‘Mr No Deal’ in the event of a failure to find agreement.
Asked by the BBC if he still felt a no-deal was a million-to-one outcome, as he had once suggested in the Tory leadership race, Johnson replied: “It all depends on our EU friends and partners.
“It depends very much on the willingness to cooperate and [on] the Commons…I think it’s going to be touch and go, but the important thing is to get ready to come out without a deal”.
The PM said that he hoped there had been a change in mood among Germany and France in recent days and said “we will get going” on fresh contacts with Brussels
But he delighted Eurosceptic Tories by confirming for the first time that he would refuse to pay up the £39bn Brexit bill if there was no-deal.
“If we come out without an agreement it is certainly true that the 39 billion is no longer, strictly speaking, owed,” he said.
“There will be very substantial sums available to our country to spend on our priorities. It’s not a threat, it’s a simple fact of reality.”
Government officials added that the £39bn figure had been drafted on the basis of a withdrawal agreement going ahead with a two-year transition period, which would obviously disappear in the event of the UK quitting without agreement.
“Substantial sums” would then be released to spend within the UK, they added. One source suggested that the UK’s remaining liabilities would be as little as £7bn.
No.10 said that Johnson’s next meeting with Tusk will be in late September at the UN general assembly, by which time parliament will have had its own chance to try to seek an extension to the UK’s membership of the EU.
Ahead of the meeting, Johnson made light of the disagreements over Brexit, appearing alongside Tusk to say they been in “completely glutinous agreement” on most of the issues at the G7, from Ukraine and Russia or Iran and Hong Kong.
One EU diplomat was scathing about the lack of any new detail. “The ball is really squarely and firmly in the UK’s court,” they told the FT.
“They have been telling the press they have new ideas and eventually they will come up. But they didn’t come up today. The brutal fact there is nothing.”
Labour MP Alex Sobel, part of the People’s Vote campaign, said that Johnson’s changing stance was an attempt to con the public.
“Recently, Boris Johnson was claiming that the chance of crashing out of the EU in a disastrous No Deal was ‘a million to one’ but just a few weeks later it’s ‘touch and go.’ His willingness to gaslight the British public seems to have no limits.”
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