Boris Johnson thought backstop was a ‘convenient fiction’

Brexiteer tells Pendulum Summit UK risks being ‘held to ransom’ by backstop accord

The European Union and the UK should devise a back-up "standstill agreement" to avoid tariffs on cross-border goods trade in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Tory MP Boris Johnson said in Dublin on Thursday.

Mr Johnson, a prominent Brexiteer, told a business conference that an agreement to maintain "zero tariffs" could be introduced as an "interim measure" to avoid reverting to World Trade Organisation tariffs, which would otherwise automatically kick in in the event of Britain crashing out of the EU.

He denied he is “hungering or thirsting” for Britain to exit the EU in March without a formal withdrawal agreement, which politicians say would be disastrous for trade, with the State in line to be the worst-affected.

Mr Johnson also denied that a so-called “backstop” agreement is required to avoid a hard border between the Republic and the North. He claimed the issue had been exploited by EU politicians to keep the UK linked to the bloc.

Testy exchange

The UK politician spoke at the Pendulum Summit in Dublin, where he was interviewed onstage by RTÉ broadcaster Bryan Dobson in a testy exchange.

Mr Dobson pressed Mr Johnson on his apparent support for a backstop agreement in December 2017, when both the EU and UK declared the need for one as a back-up to avoid the possibility of a hard border in Ireland.

Mr Johnson said he believed at the time that the December 2017 declaration was a “convenient fiction” and “a form of words to be endured” to allow talks progress, and that he never thought it should be implemented.

He said the Irish backstop, which would ultimately keep the Republic and the North aligned on customs rules for a period even if the rest of the UK’s rules eventually changed, risked his nation being “held to ransom”.

“If [the UK] wanted to diverge [on customs rules], unless we sorted out the Northern Ireland Border to the satisfaction of other parties, we would be locked into the customs union and single market, or forced to give up control of Northern Ireland,” he said.

Video solution

A hard border in Ireland would “never” be implemented in any circumstance, he claimed, before calling for the revival of a previously rejected idea that technology, such as video cameras, could be used to monitor cross-Border trade.

“Nobody wants a hard border. Nobody will implement it. We should not abandon attempts to find a technological solution without even trying.”

When told that, under trading rules, vehicles carrying goods over the Border would have to be physically checked in a no-deal scenario, he suggested the UK should call the EU’s and the State’s bluff.

"That's a matter for Ireland, if you were to choose for every lorry to be interrupted and checked," he said, before exiting the stage to the tune of the 1980s song Final Countdown by the band Europe.

Mr Johnson gave a presentation on the theme of "opportunity in uncertainty" at Pendulum, the event co-founded by former rugby star Frankie Sheahan. In his speech, he suggested politicians are currently afraid of risk, and he called on the UK and the State to work together and to be "bold and brave".