Gibraltar is “not for sale”, Boris Johnson declared last night as the Tory leadership reacted furiously to an alleged “land grab” by the Spanish.
The Foreign Secretary told the Telegraph that the British territory will not be “traded” or “bargained away” during Brexit talks.
He was joined by Downing Street, Tory MPs and the party’s leader in the European Parliament who universally declared the UK’s support for Gibraltar.
It followed the surprise decision by EU leaders to mention, in their framework for Brexit talks, a Spanish veto over any future trade deal involving Gibraltar.
The peninsula has been out of Spanish control for more than 300 years but the country continues to insist it should be returned.
The news was greeted with gloating headlines in Spain. El País, the country’s best-selling newspaper, said Spain had been handed an “unexpected position of strength” while El Mundo heralded a “victory”.
A headline in the ABC newspaper read: “Gibraltar: the Spanish government reaches its first triumph after Brexit negotiations begin.”
But Mr Johnson hit back on Saturday night as the Government moved to shut down any suggestion the British Overseas Territory’s status could change.
“Gibraltar is not for sale. Gibraltar cannot be traded. Gibraltar will not be bargained away,” Mr Johnson told the Telegraph.
“The policy of the Government remains fixed and firm. The sovereignty of Gibraltar cannot be changed without the express consent of the UK and the people of Gibraltar.”
He praised Gibraltar’s “vibrant business centre” and said its harbour remains a “key Nato asset” because it can take nuclear submarines.
“The UK Government can be counted on to stick up for those interests – for instance in insurance and maritime services – which create jobs not just in Gibraltar but in the wider region of southern Spain.
“The status of Gibraltar has been unchanged since 1713. It made no difference when the UK joined the Common Market in 1973 and when Spain was not yet a member. It should make no difference today.
“So let us go into these discussions with goodwill and optimism and get a deal that is good for the UK, good for Spain, and good for the people of Gibraltar.”
The intervention comes after a furious diplomatic row was triggered by a mention of Gibraltar in Brexit negotiation guidelines published this week by European Council president Donald Tusk.
"After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom,” the line read.
European Parliament figures looked to calm the row by saying it was merely a restatement of fact – that Spain, alongside all EU countries, can veto any future trade deal.
However Gibraltan politicians said the decision to explicitly mention the territory and Spain was "provocative" and a "slap in the face” to its people.
Gibraltar, a 2.6 square mile peninsula, is a self-governing British Overseas Territory, similar to the Cayman Islands or the Falklands.
Spain lost control in 1704 but in recent decades has argued that the territory should be returned to its control.
Spanish politicians appeared emboldened by the move. Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, Spain’s deputy Prime Minister, said: “Whether it’s asking for a bailout or fighting for Gibraltar, we fight tooth and nail.”
A spokesman for Spain’s Socialist party said: “Now with Brexit, there is an opportunity for a very good start to negotiate with the United Kingdom in a reasonable and bilateral way one of the most difficult issues for Spain.”
It was also claimed on Saturday night that Spain’s foreign minister Alfonso Dastis personally approved the final text about Gibraltar on Thursday during a visit to Brussels.
The move was compounded in the eyes of some by the fact that Theresa May’s own six-page letter triggering Brexit made no mention of Gibraltar.
Downing Street said Mrs May had made clear the Government was "absolutely steadfast in our support of Gibraltar, its people and its economy" in a speech to MPs last week.
The row has led to fresh concerns Spain could close the border between itself and Gibraltar – which has a population of 30,000 – after Brexit.
In the past, guards have slowed checks at the border – crossed by 10,000 Spaniards every day – while claiming they were looking for smugglers.
When Gibraltar leaves the EU with Britain there are concerns Spain could repeat the move because it would no longer be breaching the bloc’s “freedom of movement” right.
Ashley Fox, the Tory MEP for the South West of England & Gibraltar, who also leads the party in the European Parliament, criticised the EU for mentioning Spain's veto in its Brexit guidelines.
He said: “It is provocative, it is unhelpful, it is a distraction. But ask yourself why Spain keeps doing this? It is because of weakness at home. Sovereignty is not negotiable, we have been absolutely clear on this.”
Fabian Picardo, Chief Minister of Gibraltar, told the Telegraph: “It is a slap in the face for the people of Gibraltar who are the ones who most vehemently supported remaining in the European Union." The territory voted 96 per cent to stay in the EU at the referendum.
He added: “It is unfair, it demonstrates that Spain will use any opportunity to try and advance its claim to Gibraltar.”
However Méndez de Vigo, the Spanish education minister, said: “The recognition of the European Union of the legal and political situation that Spain has defended fully satisfies us.”