Boris Johnson on Monday stepped up preparations for a general election as concern mounts in Downing Street that the prime minister’s attempt to engineer a Brexit deal is heading for failure.
Instead of touring European capitals trying to sell his proposed deal, Mr Johnson spent part of the day in a Watford hospital, the latest in a series of trips to medical centres to promote his injection of cash into the National Health Service.
The prime minister’s Brexit plan has been rejected by the EU on multiple counts and there is little sign of the kind of intensive diplomatic activity that might normally be expected by a government looking to break the deadlock, with a key Brussels summit on October 17-18.
“The ball is in their court,” said one British official. “So far they haven’t moved a millimetre.” In Brussels talk is turning to offering Britain an extension to the Article 50 Brexit process, rather than any realistic prospect of a deal next week.
Mr Johnson’s closest advisers admit that the prime minister could be forced — against his will — to seek such an extension by the so-called Benn Act, the law that requires him to write a letter seeking a delay to Brexit if no deal is agreed by October 19.
“If we can’t cheat the Benn Act, there will be an election soon,” one aide said. A plan is being prepared to try to avoid Mr Johnson getting the blame if he does not deliver on his “do or die” promise to deliver Brexit on October 31.
Mr Johnson is expected to challenge the Benn Act in the courts; if he loses he would then tell voters that he tried every possible route to deliver Brexit but that an obstructive parliament and Brussels prevented him from doing so.
Meanwhile Number 10 is putting the finishing touches to the Queen’s Speech on October 14, which will set out the government’s legislative programme, including reforms to health and education.
It will in effect see the monarch read out the contents of the next Conservative manifesto; since Mr Johnson has no Commons majority, he cannot expect to put any of his proposals into law in this parliament.
The ramping up of election talk, came as the MP Heidi Allen joined the Liberal Democrats, taking the pro-EU party’s tally in the Commons to 19 members.
The party, who are campaigning to revoke the Article 50 Brexit process without recourse to a second referendum, have seen seven MPs join their ranks from the Conservatives and Labour in recent months.
Ms Allen defected from the Tories earlier this year to become interim leader of Change UK — the party formed by disaffected centrist Labour and Conservative MPs — before quitting to sit as an independent amid a row about whether it should join forces with the Lib Dems.
“I recognise that as with most things in life, I am stronger and more effective when I am part of a team,” Ms Allen said on Monday night. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I know that the best way to serve my constituents and country is to join the Liberal Democrats.”
David Frost, Mr Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, held talks with the European Commission on Monday and remained in Brussels overnight for further talks on Tuesday, hoping to begin detailed legal negotiations.
Meanwhile Mr Johnson held telephone conversations with his counterparts in Poland, Sweden and Denmark, but he has not made any visits to European capitals since publishing his Brexit plan last week and none are planned.
The EU has rejected the centrepiece of Mr Johnson’s plan, which would see Northern Ireland remain in the UK customs area, creating a new customs border between the region and the Republic of Ireland.
It has also opposed the idea that the Democratic Unionist party could — in effect — have a veto over a separate proposal to keep Northern Ireland in the EU regulatory area, to reduce the need for checks at the border.
Although British officials say that they are willing to move on the “consent” point, the real obstacle over customs appears as insuperable as ever.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman told journalists: “If your question is are we prepared for Northern Ireland to be in a different customs territory to the UK, the answer is a very firm no.”
The commission said on Friday that Mr Johnson’s new Brexit proposal did not provide the basis for concluding an agreement.
EU diplomats said that technical-level talks in Brussels on Monday between UK negotiator Mr Frost and the commission had failed to break new ground.
One diplomat said that there had been “no changes to the UK position on the major stuff”.
A UK government spokesperson said that Britain presented “additional legal text” providing “further technical detail on customs and goods regulations”.
An EU diplomat said that part of Monday’s talks concerned the UK’s wish to have a future relationship with the EU based around a trade deal rather than the closer co-operation foreseen by Theresa May, Mr Johnson’s predecessor.
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