Tory grandees’ fury over Johnson’s ‘nationalist’ no-deal Brexit | Brexit

Boris Johnson faced a rising tide of anger from senior Tories and business leaders last night as he appeared ready to embrace a no-deal Brexit and prepared Royal Navy gunboats to defend UK fishing waters.

With the prime minister and the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, due to decide on Sunday whether to halt stalled talks and make the momentous decision to accept no deal – an outcome that would lead to tariffs and quotas on UK-EU trade and rising prices – Johnson’s handling of the final stage of negotiations has caused astonishment in his own party, and the EU.

Fearing the disastrous effects of no deal, former cabinet ministers called for talks to resume despite Sunday’s “final deadline”, to make sure 2021 does not begin against a backdrop of twin crises caused by the pandemic and Brexit.

Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the defence select committee, also expressed outrage at government-inspired headlines about plans to use gunboats to patrol fishing waters – confirmed by the Ministry of Defence – saying they were “absolutely irresponsible” and damaging to the UK’s reputation abroad.

Damian Green, a former cabinet minister, led calls from Tory remainers for talks to last as long as is needed to reach a deal. “Every rational person in Britain and Europe knows a deal would be better all round, so I still cling to the hope that reason will win the day,” he said.

A government source said: “Talks are continuing overnight, but as things stand the offer on the table from the EU remains unacceptable. The prime minister will leave no stone unturned, but he is absolutely clear: any agreement must be fair and respect the fundamental position that the UK will be a sovereign nation in three weeks’ time.”

A Downing Streeet source said the talks in Brussels remain very difficult.

Writing in the Observer today, Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, expresses his disbelief that businesses have still not been informed of the rules under which they will have to operate from 1 January.

“Businesses need detailed answers, not vague letters, posters or television adverts,” Marshall writes. “It is hard to believe that we still have to ask ministers for clarity on the nuts and bolts of trade – things like rules of origin, customs software, tariff codes, and much more besides – just a fortnight before the end of the transition period.”

He adds that lack of clarity will mean investment decisions will be delayed: “Businesses can and will adapt to the UK’s new trade reality. Yet they’re not miracle workers or mind-readers. Without official guidance, many will pause long-term planning and hold back on investment.”

The use of gunboats to patrol UK fishing waters in the event of no deal was backed by Admiral Lord West, a former chief of naval staff. “It is absolutely appropriate that the Royal Navy should protect our waters if the position is we’re a sovereign state and our government has said we don’t want other nations there,” he told the BBC.

But the behaviour of the Johnson government drew outraged responses from pro-Remain Tory grandees. Also writing in today’s Observer, former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine says of Brexit and the slide towards no deal: “This government will be – and should be – held responsible for quite simply the worst peacetime decision of modern times. I know personally of members of the cabinet who believe this as firmly as I do. I cannot understand their silence.”

Heseltine adds: “Christmas is upon us and before the country goes back to work we are on our own. Sovereign, in charge, control regained. None of that creates a single job, one pound’s worth of investment or any rise in living standards. We will have risked our trading relationship with the world’s largest market which accounts for nearly half our imports and exports.”

Meanwhile the former Tory party chairman and European commissioner Chris Patten said Johnson was not a Conservative but an “English nationalist”. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today that he feared for the UK’s future when it was finally out of the EU single market, “which we of course helped to build because the main constructor of the single market was Margaret Thatcher”.

On Sunday the Cabinet Office releases details of its latest Brexit planning, which suggests a willingness by Johnson to accept a no-deal. A Whitehall source said preparations had been thorough but predicted difficult moments, including clashes with foreign fishing boats.

Lord Heseltine wrote: ‘We will have risked our trading relationship with the world’s largest market which accounts for nearly half our imports and exports.’ Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

“We’ve hired 900 more officers to man the border, with 1,100 border staff set to be recruited by March. There are over 20 helplines to provide advice to specific sectors, and we’ve even given businesses more time to prepare by introducing import controls in stages, he said.

“Come 1 January we’ll have to move quickly and decisively to tackle issues if they arise. We’ve developed a playbook which maps out every foreseeable scenario with minister-approved courses of action so we can implement them immediately if needed.

“These plans work in real life, not just on paper. We’ve run live exercises moving fresh produce and fish across the border, and scrambled naval vessels to respond to threats of illegal fishing in our soon-to-be sovereign waters.

“We’ve tested our traffic management plans and are confident we have the tools to mitigate disruption and queues at the border which will inevitably occur in the early weeks as traders adjust to the new requirements. By building more lorry spaces than we need, prioritising lorries carrying fish and day-old chicks, and launching the ‘Check an HGV’ service, goods can keep moving smoothly through Kent.”

Greg Clark, the former business secretary and current chair of the Commons science committee, said: “It is clearly unacceptable for the UK to be expected to agree to be unilaterally punished if we declined to follow future EU policy.”


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