Brussels has roundly rebuffed Boris Johnson after he laid down tough conditions for the new Brexit deal he hopes to strike over the summer.
Speaking to the House of Commons for the first time as prime minister on Thursday, Johnson reiterated his campaign pledge of ditching the Irish backstop and promised to ramp up preparations for a no-deal Brexit immediately.
“I would prefer us to leave the EU with a deal,” he said. “I would much prefer it. I believe that it is possible even at this late stage, and I will work flat-out to make it happen.
“But certain things need to be clear: the withdrawal agreement negotiated by my predecessor has been three times rejected by this house; its terms are unacceptable to this parliament and to this country.”
In a phone call later in the day, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, signalled the EU27’s determination to stick with the deal negotiated with Theresa May’s government – which includes the backstop.
“President Juncker listened to what Prime Minister Johnson had to say, reiterating the EU’s position that the withdrawal agreement is the best and only agreement possible – in line with the European council guidelines,” a commission spokesperson said.
Juncker told Johnson the EU was willing to “add language” to the political declaration – the non-binding document that covers the future relationship – but would only consider any other proposals “providing they are compatible with the withdrawal agreement”. The spokesperson added that the two men had swapped mobile numbers.
Earlier, Johnson outlined to a noisy Commons his vision of a post-Brexit UK in 2050 as “the greatest and most prosperous economy in Europe at the centre of a new network of trade deals”.
In a speech that was loudly cheered by many Conservative MPs, he said all members of his new cabinet were committed to leaving the EU on 31 October “whatever the circumstances – and to do otherwise would cause a catastrophic loss of confidence in our political system”.
He also said he would ramp up no-deal preparations, which his official spokesman later confirmed was likely to include additional spending, and a significant public information campaign. Michael Gove will coordinate no-deal planning across the government.
The Irish government expressed concern at Johnson’s approach to Brexit as tension began to mount over the increased risk of no deal. Michael Creed, Ireland’s agriculture minister, described the new government’s stance, and the composition of Johnson’s top team, as “alarming”.
“The makeup of this government seems to be a mirror image of [Johnson’s] own viewpoint substantially and obviously that would be of concern to us,” he told RTÉ radio.
“What the [Irish] government is concerned about now is the approach of new administration in the UK to the withdrawal agreement,” he said, adding: “Obviously what we are hearing from the [UK] government is quite alarming.”
In Brussels, meanwhile, Michel Barnier warned that such “combative” rhetoric was an attempt to crack the EU’s unity. In a note sent to diplomats, the bloc’s chief negotiator counselled the EU27 to stick to its principles in the face of the prime minister’s no-deal threats.
“PM Johnson has stated that if an agreement is to be reached it goes by way of eliminating the backstop. This is of course unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European council,” he warned.
In comments that signalled the growing belief in Brussels that the UK is heading towards a general election, Barnier wrote: “I note also the many strong reactions to the speech in the House of Commons. In this context we must follow carefully the further political and economic reactions and developments in the UK following this speech.
“In any case, what remains essential on our side is to remain calm, stick to our principles and guidelines and show solidarity and unity of the 27.”
Many MPs on both sides of the House of Commons believe Johnson’s bid to negotiate a new Brexit deal are merely the prelude to a general election, given the high bar he has set for success and the Tories’ slim majority.
Johnson is announcing that the recruitment of 20,000 additional police officers will start within weeks – an eye-catching promise first made during his leadership campaign, that could sit comfortably in a Tory manifesto.
“As I said on the steps of Downing Street this week, my job as prime minister is to make our streets safer. People want to see more officers in their neighbourhoods, protecting the public and cutting crime,” he said.
Increasing the number of officers by 20,000 will only partially reverse the deep cuts made since 2010.
The new government is also announcing the creation of a new “national policing board”, chaired by the home secretary, Priti Patel, in what she described as “the start of a new relationship between the government and the police”.
Other election-ready pledges made in Johnson’s first 48 hours in Downing Street included upgrading 20 hospitals, fixing the broken social care system, cutting GP waiting times and rolling out full-fibre broadband across the country.
The presence of the Vote Leave campaign mastermind Dominic Cummings in No 10 has also fuelled speculation about an autumn poll.
Johnson will make a series of campaign-style visits in the coming days – including to Scotland, where the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, has expressed some concerns about his approach.
Outlining his Brexit stance to MPs on Thursday, Johnson said he was ready to “negotiate in good faith” to find an alternative to the Irish backstop.
“I do not accept the argument that says that these issues can only be solved by all or part of the UK remaining in the customs union or in the single market,” he said. “The evidence is that other arrangements are perfectly possible, and are also perfectly compatible with the Belfast or Good Friday agreement, to which we are of course steadfastly committed.”
Challenged by Labour’s Hilary Benn about comments from the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, ruling out a new withdrawal agreement, Johnson said the question was “redolent of the kind of defeatism and negativity that we’ve had over the last three years”.
“Why begin by assuming that our EU friends will not wish to compromise?” he asked.
Similarly, when another Labour backbencher, Yvette Cooper, asked Johnson about what practical solutions could be used for the Irish border in the absence of a trade deal or backstop, he replied that there were “abundant facilitations already available”.