Boris Johnson is to “step up the tempo” of talks in Brussels to secure a new Brexit deal, as he attempts to avert a defeat at the hands of Labour and pro-European Conservative rebel MPs at Westminster next week.
Mr Johnson has instructed his chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, to meet his EU counterparts twice a week throughout September to hammer out a revised exit deal ahead of pivotal summit on October 17-18.
The prime minister’s push for a deal that removes the backstop — the clause in Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement to avoid a hard border in Ireland — is intended to reassure Tory MPs that he is serious on securing a compromise with Brussels.
Between 20 and 40 Tory MPs are considering voting with the Labour opposition in a Commons showdown to pass a law instructing Mr Johnson to seek a delay to Brexit, rather than take Britain out of the EU without a deal.
David Gauke, former justice secretary, told the BBC it could be “the only opportunity” for opponents of a no-deal exit to tie Mr Johnson’s hands and to ensure there is no disorderly exit on October 31.
Mr Johnson’s contentious decision to suspend parliament for five weeks from the second week of September until October 14 has alarmed opponents of a no deal Brexit.
Parliament returns from its summer break next Tuesday. With some Labour MPs from Leave-voting areas expected to vote with Mr Johnson, the arithmetic will be tight. The prime minister hopes to win over wavering Tory MPs with the promise to push hard for a new Brexit deal.
“I have said right from my first day in office that we are ready to work in an energetic and determined way to get a deal done,” Mr Johnson said. “It is now time to step up the tempo.”
He added: “The increase in meetings and discussions is necessary if we are to have a chance of agreeing a deal when we leave on October 31.”
Mr Johnson said he had been “encouraged” by recent discussions with European leaders. But EU officials said Britain had so far failed to provide any inkling of a solution to replace the Irish backstop, which aims to maintain an open border.
Brussels insists that the ball remains in the UK’s court and some diplomats were left deeply disappointed by the lack of concrete detail being offered by the British. “There is a lingering feeling those ideas may never come,” said one EU diplomat.
Having previously insisted that he would be interested in talking only once the EU agreed to scrap the backstop, Mr Johnson has now agreed to start talks without that commitment — reflecting a softening of his position.
A leaked EU parliament note, seen by the Financial Times, said that Mr Frost “stressed very strongly that the new prime minister was seeking a deal, which was definitely his first option, but that he was not frightened of no-deal.”
One EU official said that Mr Frost was clear that Britain wanted a replacement for the backstop to be agreed ahead of the EU October summit.
Brussels is already considering what any potential solution might be called, given Mr Johnson’s insistence that any withdrawal deal cannot contain a “backstop”. One official said that ideas under consideration include a rebranding, with a change of name to make reference to the Irish peace process.
In a sign of widespread anger over Mr Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament, the hard left Momentum group, which backs Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, called on its supporters to “occupy bridges and blockade roads” in protest.
Mr Corbyn wrote to Labour MPs yesterday urging them to join protests across the country.