Johnson rules out backstop even with time limit or exit clause; Hunt says it ‘is dead’
Tory leadership candidates say backstop must be removed completely before they can accept the withdrawal agreement
Conservative leadership candidate Boris Johnson at Westminster. “No to time limits or unilateral escape hatches or all these elaborate devices, glosses, codicils and so on that you could apply to the backstop.” Photograph: Getty Images
Fears of a no-deal Brexit rose in London and Brussels on Tuesday after both candidates for the Conservative leadership said the Northern backstop must be removed completely before they could accept the withdrawal agreement. Sterling fell to its lowest level against the dollar in more than two years and against the euro in six months as some Conservative MPs expressed concern at the candidates’ radicalisation on Brexit.
At a debate hosted by the Sun newspaper on Monday night, Boris Johnson said the backstop “needs to come out” of the withdrawal agreement, and he ruled out accepting it even with a time limit or an exit clause.
“No to time limits or unilateral escape hatches or all these elaborate devices, glosses, codicils and so on that you could apply to the backstop.”
Jeremy Hunt, who has until now adopted a more flexible approach to Brexit, agreed that a time limit would not address concerns about the backstop. “The backstop, as it is, is dead, so I agree with Boris – I don’t think tweaking it with a time limit will do the trick, we’ve got to find a new way.”
Simon Hoare, the Conservative chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster, said the candidates had taken a dangerous step that was worrying and depressing.
“Both of the candidates yesterday moved the goalposts,” he told Sky News. “All I can hope is that this prose is caught up in the heat of an election campaign. It is not good for the union – this is a very dangerous step that both men seem to have taken.”
Former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve said Mr Johnson’s comments confirmed that Brexiteers were using the backstop as an excuse to leave the EU without a deal.
“When challenged and confronted he radicalised even further, and excluded any possibility of trying to negotiate some way out of the backstop at all. It had to go in its totality. The consequence of that is it makes the choices starker and starker,” he said.
“I’ve always been willing as a politician to listen to people willing to come up with credible compromises, but what I’ve found so staggering about the Conservative leadership is it has been played to a tune of growing extremism.”
Mr Grieve acknowledged that it could be difficult for MPs to block a no-deal Brexit, but he said that any administration that sought to leave the EU without a deal would face a no-confidence vote.
He hinted that he could resign the Conservative whip if Mr Johnson succeeds Theresa May next week, and suggested that some current ministers will join the backbench rebels next week.
“By the end of next week there are going to be more Conservatives who have indicated very clearly that no-deal is unacceptable, and I notice that many of them will no longer be on the front bench,” he told the BBC.
In Dublin meanwhile Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe strongly defended the backstop and insisted it will not be changed.
“We will not be changing the backstop,” Mr Donohoe said.
“If you want to avoid customs infrastructure on the border and the United Kingdom is making the decision to exit the customs union, you need regulatory alignment and the backstop is simply a procedure for ensuring regulatory alignment in a variety of different circumstances.
“This reality, I fear, will become quickly apparent to any new UK prime minister,” he said.
“That has been the reality that we have had to grapple with for nearly three years and it is a reality that will confront a new British prime minister.”
Mr Donohoe said he had followed what was said in the debates between Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt, but didn’t wish to comment. However, he said, “What will be important for us is what happens when the new prime minister of the United Kingdom is elected.
“But the person who is taking over that role will not change the key issues that we are facing. And I want to reiterate what the Taoiseach said - there may well be a change in personality but the Irish government and the EU are really clear: that we are not going to be changing the content of the backstop agreement and that in any future scenario that the backstop and the withdrawal agreement will be needed,” he said.
He said a disorderly Brexit is “now a significant and increasing risk.”
The winner of the Conservative leadership contest will be announced next Tuesday, with the new prime minister taking office the following day.