Boris Johnson has ordered ministers to prepare for the “strong possibility” of a no-deal Brexit, warning that the UK risks being “locked in the EU’s orbit” as senior Tories urge him to find an agreement.
After a three-hour summit with the European commission chief, Ursula von der Leyen, failed to bridge major gaps between them, the prime minister said he was prepared to “go the extra mile” by flying to Paris or Berlin for face-to-face talks with EU leaders.
But he said the EU’s current offer was unacceptable because the UK could not be treated like its twin.
“It was put to me that this was kind of a bit like twins, and the UK is one twin the EU is another, and if the EU decides to have a haircut then the UK is going to have a haircut or else face punishment. Or if the EU decides to buy an expensive handbag then the UK has to buy an expensive handbag too or else face tariffs,” he said.
“Clearly that is not the sensible way to proceed and it’s unlike any other free trade deal. It’s a way of keeping the UK kind of locked in the EU’s … regulatory orbit.”
Johnson’s language echoed his condemnation of Theresa May’s Brexit deal. After he resigned as foreign secretary in 2018, he told that year’s Tory party conference that Britain must not be “locked in the tractor beam of Brussels”.
He added on Thursday: “I do think we need to be very, very clear. There is now a strong possibility – a strong possibility – that we will have a solution that is much more like an Australian relationship with the EU than a Canadian relationship with the EU.”
Downing Street said Johnson had overwhelming cabinet backing for his stance despite official forecasts suggesting no deal would knock an extra 2% of GDP off an economy already hit hard by the Covid crisis.
“What I told the cabinet this evening is to get on and make those preparations. We’re not stopping talks, we’ll continue to negotiate but looking at where we are I do think it’s vital that everyone now gets ready for that Australian option,” Johnson said.
The Australian option is Johnson’s name for trading on World Trade Organization terms with the EU, meaning tariffs being imposed on a wide range of goods.
Meanwhile, lorry queues built up in Kent for the third day in a row, attributed to Brexit stockpiling, Covid vaccine deliveries and Christmas traffic. Heavy congestion is expected over the weekend with a live test of no-deal contingency plans.
Barriers will be put in place to create a contraflow system as part of Operation Brock, Kent’s longer-term contingency plan for Brexit gridlock. Similar plans known as Operation Transmission are being prepared around Portsmouth international port.
Johnson’s blunt statement came amid warnings from senior Conservatives that “the world is watching” as Brexit negotiations enter their final phase. Some MPs said they were discussing whether they could use parliamentary tactics to block a no-deal exit.
After Wednesday evening’s dinner between Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen ended at an impasse with a new deadline set for Sunday, Tory MPs have become increasingly concerned that the risk of a no-deal exit on 1 January is rising.
Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the defence committee, said: “The world is watching this. We are being marked for our international prestige, our statecraft and how we deploy it. And what we lose will be huge.”
He pointed to the security implications of a no-deal exit. “There will be economic repercussions but also security ones. Our Channel waters are being buzzed by Russian submarines, our airspace by Russian jets. We need alliances – and Europe needs to stand and work together. This would be us turning the other way, just as we assume the G7 presidency.”
The European commission published its own no-deal contingency plans on Wednesday, including allowing airlines from the UK to operate flights across its territory and keeping roads open to British hauliers for six months – but only if the UK reciprocates.
Under the same terms, Brussels will also offer UK fishermen access to its seas and open negotiations over quotas. Johnson’s spokesman appeared to suggest that would be unacceptable, however, saying: “We would never accept arrangements and access to UK fishing waters which are incompatible with our status as an independent coastal state.”
The former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said a no-deal exit would be a “failure of statecraft”, but he laid the blame on the EU for failing to understand the UK position. “I still think that the Europeans are overestimating the political space that Boris Johnson has on this,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s a very perilous situation.”
Damian Green, chair of the One Nation group of Tory MPs, said: “It has always been in Britain’s best interest to leave on friendly terms, with a deal that allows people and trade to flow as freely as possible. That is still true, even in these last few days.”
The former minister Stephen Hammond added: “Ending the year without a free trade agreement would be bad for Britain and the EU. I really urge the negotiating teams to find a solution – for the benefit of all the citizens of Europe.”
The former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, a supporter of Johnson’s leadership campaign, said it was vital every effort was made. “At this critical juncture, every sinew must be stretched to secure a deal. Not at any price; the country voted to leave and we are a proud independent nation.
“But no one should be in any doubt of the economic consequences of proceeding without a deal on 1 January next year.”
The shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves, castigated the government for failing to get agreement, urging the prime minister to take control of the negotiations and “bring back a deal”.