Boris Johnson changes tone to push last-minute Brexit plan — but time is running out

Image: Boris Johnso
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks about the government's proposed Brexit deal in the House of Commons in central London on Oct. 3, 2019. Copyright AFP - Getty Images
Copyright AFP - Getty Images
By Patrick Smith with NBC News World News
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The agreement suggests a solution to the deadlock over Northern Ireland, a crucial sticking point in the Brexit process.


LONDON — Has British Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost his bluster?

In far more measured terms that he has used in recent weeks, Johnson on Thursday pleaded with British lawmakers and European leaders to back his last ditch-proposals to solve the Brexit deadlock and get a divorce deal with the European Union.

Addressing the House of Commons, Johnson outlined a new approach to Northern Ireland — part of the U.K. but integrated with the Irish Republic, an E.U. member.

"If our European neighbors choose to show a corresponding willingness to reach a deal then we shall have to leave on Oct. 31 without an agreement and we are ready to do so," Johnson said, a day after his government submitted its proposal to the E.U. "But that outcome would be a failure of statecraft for which all parties would be held responsible."

His tone marked a change from recent blustery and strident comments from the prime minister, who has in the past pledged to take the country out of the E.U. by Oct. 31 "do or die."

Parliament rejected multiple deals that Theresa May, Johnson's predecessor, negotiated with the E.U.

Economists have warned leaving without a deal would have dire consequences for the U.K. and Irish economies — but some English Euroskeptics, including some in Johnson's cabinet, favor this approach.

The European Parliament's Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, did not sound convinced, saying would be "nearly impossible" for the E.U. to agree to Johnson's plan.

The European Parliament's Brexit Steering Group went further and said "the proposals do not match even remotely what was agreed as a sufficient compromise in the backstop."

The complex plan released Thursday would see Northern Ireland remain in the E.U. single market for goods — a shared set of trading and economic rules all 28 member states follow — but follow U.K. customs rules.

A customs border could threaten the current frictionless border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Politicians in Dublin, Belfast and Brussels fear this could jeopardize the 1998 Good Friday peace treaty that brought an end to the sectarian conflict known as The Troubles.


Johnson argued that any customs checks could happen electronically or away from the actual border. He said protecting the peace process was the "highest priority of all."

The Irish Republic's foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said the proposal "is not consistent with the Good Friday Agreement.

And the prime minister's critics accuse him of acting in bad faith and submitting a plan designed to be rejected by the E.U. so he has a greater chance of leaving by the October deadline.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused him of tabling a deal he knows won't be passed by British lawmakers or European leaders. He said Johnson wanted "a Trump deal Brexit that would crash our economy and rip away the standards that put a floor on people's rights at work."

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar spoke to Johnson Wednesday night, the Irish government said in a statement, and told him the plan didn't adequately replace the controversial "backstop" — an insurance policy that would avoid a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

Euroskeptics including Johnson argue the backstop is undemocratic because it could keep the U.K. in an E.U. customs union indefinitely.

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