The UK government will have to “take a position in the next few days” on whether a Brexit deal can be struck, the cabinet minister George Eustice has said, accusing the EU of making “a whole load of additional demands” at the last minute that put the prospects of an agreement in doubt.
In interviews on Sunday morning, the environment secretary echoed reports overnight that talks were close to collapse, with a UK source close to the negotiations telling journalists: “This is the final throw of the dice”.
Eustice told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday the government was planning to reinstate parts of the internal market bill that break international law – but also accused the EU of taking a “ludicrous” position on fishing rights that was not consistent with the same laws.
He told Ridge talks were “in a very difficult position – there is no point denying that”.
“There was some hope early last week progress was being made, and at one point it looked like there might be a breakthrough but then the European Union added a whole load of additional demands after that which caused some problems.
“We will continue to work on these negotiations until there is no point doing so any further but there is no point denying that what happened late last week was a setback.”
Eustice’s claim that late EU demands were threatening the talks has been dismissed by EU officials.
On Sunday morning, unnamed cabinet ministers who had supported remain in the Brexit referendum were quoted in the Sunday Times as giving Boris Johnson their “rock-solid” support if he concluded that no-deal was necessary.
One said: “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.”
Eustice told the BBC’s Andrew Marr: “We probably are now in the final few days in terms of being able to decide whether there can be an agreement.
“If the ambience warms up again and actually great progress is made and it’s just about sorting out the detail you can always find more time, you can always extend. But unless we can resolve these quite fundamental divergences at the moment then we are going to have to take a position in the next few days.”
With fishing and the so-called “level-playing field” remaining sticking points, EU sources have suggested the British government may not be negotiating in good faith. An official quoted in Sunday newspapers said “where there’s a will, there’s a way – the question is whether there is a will” and accused Boris Johnson of “still wanting to have his cake and eat it”.
Eustice said the EU’s demands on future fishing rights were “ludicrous” and would mean the bloc would have access to British waters “in perpetuity”.
He claimed that the industry would be able to handle tariffs imposed under a no-deal scenario but that such tariffs could be unmanageable for farmers, saying: “The main species we export, the levels of tariffs on fish, unlike agriculture actually, are manageable.”
He also acknowledged there would be “some impact” on food prices if no trade deal was done. “There will be some impact on prices but the analysis that has been done by some of the economic modellers is that it is quite modest – less than 2% as a result of tariffs,” he said.
“It would be higher on some things such as beef and pork but those make up a relatively small proportion of the overall family shop.”
Labour shadow ministers declined to say they would vote for any agreement on the future relationship between the UK and EU.
“Let’s see,” the shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said. “At the moment the priority is to get a deal but we’ll have to look at the content of a deal but also any legislation that comes to parliament.
“We’re not going to give them a blank cheque but I think I have been very clear both today and on previous programmes with you, Andrew, that the most important thing is the government gets a deal.”
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds told Ridge: “Clearly we need to see what has been agreed… But let’s very much hope there is a deal because there seems to be two paths before us at the moment – a path of leaving the transition period without a deal and leaving with a deal, and we do know how catastrophic the no-deal outcome would be.”
Gordon Brown warned that the UK faces an “economic war” with Europe and America if no deal is done and said that Johnson’s aggressive approach could make him the “most isolated prime minister in peacetime history”.
Warning of “huge international implications” if no agreement is reached, the former prime minister said: “We would be in an economic war with Europe that would cost us very dearly… So Boris Johnson is going to end up as the most isolated Prime Minister in peacetime history, with no friends around the world, because he has simply chosen a path of confrontation.”