MANCHESTER, England — Boris Johnson called for a Brexit “compromise” with an eye on a general election as he addressed his party members Wednesday.
The U.K. prime minister made sure Tories at the partys annual conference in Manchester were kept happy with numerous gags and attacks on his opponents — usually at the same time. In the 40-minute address in Manchester, the prime minister criticized parliament and the opposition Labour Party for frustrating his plans to leave the EU on October 31.
Johnson delivered an election-ready pitch on public services and environmental measures, although he failed to outline any new policies.
The speech was a message to the nation that the prime minister wants to make a deal with Brussels and unite the country so he can deliver on his domestic agenda. He hopes to convince voters he is trying everything possible to secure a deal with the EU before his self-imposed Brexit deadline at the end of October.
In recent weeks, Johnson has twice failed to convince the House of Commons to back a general election but hopes to push again for a vote. Opposition parties have said they want to legislate to ensure the prime minister cannot pull the U.K. out of the European Union without a deal before they will back an election.
Johnson made the address as his government began laying out detailed demands to Brussels on replacing the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement struck by Theresa May.
“Today in Brussels we are tabling what I believe are constructive and reasonable proposals which provide a compromise for both sides,” he told the Tory faithful.
A spokesman for the EUs chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said that the European Commission would examine the U.K.s proposal “objectively” — but also made clear it is all but certain the prime ministers plan would be rejected, by reiterating the EU27s long-standing demands, which include the prevention of a hard border on the island of Ireland and safeguarding the integrity of the EUs single market.
Offer to Brussels
Setting out his proposal to the EU, Johnson vowed to remove the whole of the U.K. from the EU customs union so it can take immediate control over its trade policy, but he promised to do so with no checks “at or near the border” in Northern Ireland.
Johnson said regulations over agriculture would be protected on both sides of the border, and made clear that the Northern Irish Assembly would have a say over the proposals.
“This is a compromise by the U.K. and I hope very much that our friends understand that and compromise in their turn,” he said. “Because if we fail to get an agreement because of what is essentially a technical discussion of the exact nature of future customs checks, when that technology is improving the whole time, then let us be in no doubt that the alternative is no deal.
“That is not an outcome we want. It is not an outcome we seek at all. But let me tell you this, conference, it is an outcome for which we are ready.”
The comments are likely to be interpreted in Brussels as a preemptive blaming tactic in case the EU rejects the proposal. The prime minister is expected to speak to EU leaders later Wednesday.
According to the Daily Telegraph, the Brexit proposals that top British negotiator David Frost is laying out in Brussels involve taking the whole of the U.K. out of the EU customs union while keeping Northern Ireland tied to single market rules for agricultural and manufacturing products for four years.
The Northern Ireland Assembly would then get a chance to decide whether to keep the arrangements, which would effectively create a customs border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., or align more closely with British rules.
Johnson appears to have squared off Northern Irelands Democratic Unionist Party, which has a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Conservatives in Westminster. Asked about the plan to align with the EU single market for four years and then let the Stormont decide, a DUP official said: “Leadership is content to walk this path with Boris.”
Nevertheless, Johnson warned that others in Britain would do what they can to frustrate his plans.
“I am afraid that after three and a half years people are beginning to feel that they are being taken for fools,” he told the conference hall. “They are beginning to suspect that there are forces in this country that simply dont want Brexit delivered at all.
“And if they turn out to be right in that suspicion then I believe there will be grave consequences for trust in democracy. Lets get Brexit done on October 31.”
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