Boris Johnson set to give ground for Brexit deal, EU trade boss says

JOE MURPHY, NIcholas Cecil, SophiaSleigh

Incoming EU trade boss Phil Hogan today claimed the “penny was dropping” for the Government over Brexit with a possible compromise deal over the controversial Northern Ireland backstop.

The EU agriculture commissioner, who is Irish and was today nominated to take over the trade portfolio, said Boris Johnson was willing to accept a level of “divergence” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The Prime Minister recently gave support to the idea of an all-Ireland agri-food area. Speaking to the Irish Times, Mr Hogan said: “That is certainly a clear indication of divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the EU and the rest of the UK.

“This is the first time that this has been spoken about by a British prime minister where they are prepared to accept some level of divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.”

He added: “If we can build on that we certainly might get closer to one another in terms of a possible outcome.” He stressed that the EU would not accept a partial backstop, adding: “It would have to include all goods ... in terms of any agreement.”

The Democratic Unionist Party appeared open to the prospect of developing an all-Ireland agri-food zone.

DUP Leader Arlene Foster (PA)

However, Sammy Wilson MP, Brexit spokesman for the DUP, warned against any proposals for new rules in Northern Ireland which would not need the approval of the Stormont Assembly.

“What Mr Hogan is at, not only would it apply to all goods but also it would mean these regulations imposed from Brussels whether we like it or not. That is not going to fly,” he said.

Amid growing speculation that the Government could move towards backing a Northern Ireland-only backstop to break the Brexit deadlock, Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, was flying to London today for a series of meetings.

Beforehand, she stressed: “The backstop leaves us in a separate customs union from the rest of the UK, leaves us taking rules and regulations from the EU without any democratic say in those rules and regulsations, so that is unacceptable. What we want to do is find a sensible deal, a way forward that actually recognises our unique history and geography.”

Jeremy Corbyn warned Mr Johnson that a general election “is coming”, but not on the Prime Minister’s terms, as the Labour leader effectively launched his campaign for an election he is yet to vote for.

Mr Corbyn threatened to “unleash the biggest people-powered campaign we’ve ever seen” when addressing union members at the TUC Congress in Brighton .

At Cabinet this morning, Mr Johnson reportedly told ministers that, with Parliament prorogued, the Government would seek to focus on domestic issues such as the NHS, violent crime and the cost of living.

In the early hours, uproar broke out in the House of Commons as MPs chanted “shame on you” in protest at Mr Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament.

MPs held up protest signs reading “Silenced”, while others made a symbolic show of holding down Speaker John Bercow to delay the ritual of prorogation, when Parliament is shut down. Mr Bercow made his own disapproval clear by branding the five-week suspension of the world’s most famous democratic chamber as “an act of executive fiat”, or edict.

Some Right-wing Tory MPs then snubbed the Speaker by boycotting the good-natured tradition of shaking his hand at the close of the ceremony.

Labour MPs started singing revolutionary anthem The Red Flag after Scottish and Welsh nationalists sang Flower Of Scotland and Bread Of Heaven.

The extraordinary scenes erupted as the Commons session was closed down shortly before 2am by the prorogation order, recommended to the Queen by the Prime Minister, in an act most MPs believe was intended to prevent Parliament having a say over Brexit. Minutes earlier, Mr Johnson suffered his sixth Commons defeat when MPs failed to back his call for a snap general election.

Brighton Kemptown MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle grabbed hold of Mr Bercow’s leg as other MPs clung to the Speaker’s arms at the point in the ceremony when Black Rod, representing the House of Lords, summoned MPs to the Upper House. “We took a symbolic protest to say, ‘No, we do not want you to go’,” he explained afterwards. In other key developments in the bitter Brexit debate:

Calls for a second referendum on any deal brought back by Mr Johnson were boosted by former Cabinet fixer Sir Oliver Letwin, who said “an increasing number of Conservatives” saw it as a way out of the impasse in Parliament.

A senior Tory MP used the Commons to raise claims, denied by No 10, that Dominic Cummings, the PM’s controversial adviser, said at a meeting that “Northern Ireland can fall into the f***ing sea as far as I am concerned.” Mr Cummings, leaving his home this morning, told reporters: “You guys should get out of London, go and talk to people who are not rich Remainers.”

Finland’s foreign minister Pekka Haavisto, whose country currently holds the EU Council presidency, warned that the chances of a new Brexit deal were slim, saying: “Time is getting quite short for new proposals.” He said the “ball is more in London’s court” to solve the deadlock.

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