Boris Johnson told the EU that Britain must have “freedom” to make its own rules last night as cabinet ministers said he should pursue a no-deal Brexit unless Brussels backs down.
The prime minister and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, last night agreed to a “final throw of the dice” this week to salvage a deal.
But a senior No 10 figure warned the chances of getting an agreement were now “no better than 50-50” after more than four years and five months of talks.
The two leaders agreed that “no agreement is feasible” without movement on three key issues, admitting the talks were “totally stuck” on fishing quotas, regulations and governance.
If there is no progress, Johnson’s team is discussing plans for him to announce no-deal in a televised address to the nation, placing the blame squarely on EU and particularly French intransigence.
Even cabinet ministers who backed remain said Britain should now prepare for no-deal and insisted Johnson should not bow to demands to “mirror” EU rules after the transition period ends.
Thirteen cabinet ministers — including eight who opposed Brexit — confirmed that they would support no-deal if Johnson concludes that is necessary. “Just get it done,” said one who voted remain. “The PM should do what is best. He has total, 100% rock-solid cabinet support.”
Another cabinet remainer said: “I’d much rather we had a deal but he’s got a no-deal mandate if that is his judgment. Covid and its economic impact is much bigger and we can’t be seen to sell out on key sovereignty issues.”
Ministers are also proposing that the government’s XO committee, which co-ordinates planning for no-deal, sit almost around the clock. The group, chaired by Michael Gove, already meets every day but the number of meetings will dramatically increase.
A UK source close to the negotiations said: “This is the final throw of the dice. There is a fair deal to be done that works for both sides but this will only happen if the EU is willing to respect the fundamental principles of sovereignty and control.”
But sources in Brussels questioned whether there was the political will to reach a deal. An EU official said: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way — the question is whether there is a will,” accusing Johnson of “still wanting to have his cake and eat it”.
The toughening of Johnson’s stance came as Brexiteer Tory MPs threatened a leadership challenge if he “sells out” to Brussels.
Two MPs said they were prepared to send a letter demanding a vote of no confidence if Johnson accepts its terms.
Steve Baker, who led rebellions against David Cameron and Theresa May, told colleagues he is willing to break cover and lead an uprising if Johnson “betrays” hard Brexiteers.
The moves may help persuade the EU that the prime minister is serious about walking away if Brussels does not change its approach.
Britain’s chief negotiator, Lord Frost, will travel to Brussels this morning to continue the negotiations.
His team was shocked on Thursday after the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, tabled legal text saying Brussels could impose unilateral “lightning tariffs” on the UK if Britain failed to mirror future changes in EU rules.
The EU is also demanding access to British fish for its fishing boats for a decade. Britain has offered a three-year deal.
In his call with von der Leyen, Johnson made clear that neither was acceptable. A senior source said: “The big focus was the level playing field and the need for us to have the freedom to make our own rules.”
They both agreed to speak again tomorrow evening.
The race is on to secure an agreement before the government’s Internal Market Bill goes before MPs tomorrow. It contains clauses tearing up aspects of the 2019 withdrawal agreement — a move seen as inflammatory in Brussels. Barnier last night tweeted: “We will see if there is a way forward.”
Before speaking to Johnson, von der Leyen had calls with Emmanuel Macron, the French president, the most hardline EU leader, as well as Germany’s Angela Merkel and the Irish premier Micheál Martin, both of whom are pressing for a deal to be done.
In a clear sign of divisions between EU countries, Simon Coveney, the Irish minister for foreign affairs, said: “What we need now is calm heads. The negotiations were always going to reach a finale, and both the UK and the EU have negotiated firmly but honestly. A deal can still be done to minimise the damage of Brexit and allow us all to move on.”
However, some diplomats in Brussels suggested the EU’s tough line could be eased, paving the way for a deal before Wednesday. One said: “I still suspect we’re in deal territory, which requires a bit more time and a bit more drama. That’s what they’re buying themselves now.”
Diplomats do not expect the ratchet clause on regulation or unilateral retaliation to make the final deal. Barnier’s team is also prepared to drop demands, driven largely by France, that the EU Commission is granted the power to unilaterally judge what constitutes unfair competition and retaliate with tariffs on UK goods.
In return, it wants the UK to agree to set up an independent authority to regulate state aid spending.
Another EU source said: “They’re just coming up with things to justify a crisis.”
David McAllister, the German chairman of the European parliament’s UK Coordination Group, said it was still not clear whether a deal would be done.
“It is a bit like table tennis, where you have a ball going along the top of the net and it could go down one side or the other,” he said. “But as long as both sides are talking there is still the option of getting a deal and I sincerely believe a deal would be better for both sides. But either way, the timing for both outcomes is going to be very challenging.”
No 10 officials think a deal could still be ratified if it was concluded by the end of this week, but both sides want substantive progress before Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels.
A European diplomat said: “The most optimistic scenario is that a deal will be put together this weekend and be unveiled on Monday and the UK will drop the Internal Market Bill.
“At its meeting on Thursday, the council would then sign off on it. The ratification timetable is now extremely challenging. If it goes beyond Thursday, it is extremely unlikely the EU could ratify it in time.”
Away from the flashpoints of fishing and the level playing field, Frost and Barnier last week signed off final agreement on the parts of the treaty relating to benefits payments, law and order and energy.
UK officials said all three areas could be signed off quickly as side deals if there is no overarching final deal.
The prospect of no-deal is likely to send the financial markets into free fall and spook business, which had largely priced in a deal.
A new poll of business managers by the Chartered Management Institute found that 63% believed a deal was the best outcome for their company’s prospects. About 59% said that uncertainty around the outcome of Brexit talks was hampering their ability to prepare.