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Guy Verhofstadt says Britain rejoining the EU 'will happen in the coming decades'

2 days 1 hour ago
Guy Verhofstadt
Guy Verhofstadt is the European Parliament's Brexit Coordinator

Guy Verhofstadt suggested that the UK could rejoin the EU in the next few decades as young voters will demand it. 

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, the European Parliament’s Brexit chief said future generations may regret the country’s decision to leave. 

He said: “I think that will happen, yes. It’s difficult to say when actually but there will be a generation, a young generation in the coming decades who will say, ‘what have we done, we want to go back.’”

“It will happen. Maybe I will not see it in my life anymore, but it will happen."

The former Belgian prime minister was responding to comments made by British MEP Seb Dance on the country’s final day in the European Parliament.

The Labour MEP tweeted: “One day British MEPs will get to sit here again and represent our interests and work with our neighbours to solve common problems. Britain is taking a sabbatical.”

Mr Verhofstadt also discussed the UK’s upcoming trade negotiations with the EU, suggesting that it would be “very difficult” to reach a deal.

He said: “I think both sides have an interest to be very ambitious, but how far this will go is very difficult to say today becuase it will depend on what the willingness is of the UK side to comply with a number of standards in the EU.”

A number of other issues such as security measures, defence strategy and foreign policy also needed to be discussed, he added. 

But, the EU’s Brexit chief said that it was “obvious” that the EU needed a close relationship with the UK.

He also touched upon the rights of EU citizens, which he had discussed in a meeting with Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay on Thursday evening. 

Mr Verhofstadt said he’d had “assurances” from Mr Barclay that there would not be mandatory deportation of rightful citizens who had not applied for settled status by the deadline.

EU citizens would also soon be given a “physical document” to prove their settled status, he added.

Eleanor Langford

EU commissioner tells Boris Johnson trade deal ‘just not possible’ by end of 2020

2 days 19 hours ago
Phil Hogan
EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan said the UK is 'certainly' not going to get a Brexit deal this year

Agreeing a free trade deal between the UK and Brussels by the end of 2020 is "just not possible", according to a senior EU official.

Phil Hogan, the EU's trade commissioner, said the two sides were "certainly" not going to be able to meet Boris Johnson’s ambition of having a comprehensive agreement in place by the deadline of 31 December.

And he warned the UK not to engage in “brinkmanship” during the second phase of talks, saying those tactics “are not going to work on this occasion”.

Mr Johnson has repeatedly said the UK will not ask the EU for an extension to the post-Brexit transition period, which runs out at the end of 2020.

The Prime Minister reinforced the point during face-to-face talks with new European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Downing Street last week.

But Mr Hogan said Ms von der Leyen came away from the summit thinking "we have to prioritise" on aspects of the agreement, rather than try and get a full deal within 12 months.

Speaking to former Labour Cabinet minister Lord Mandelson at an event in London, he  said: "Certainly by the end of the year we are not going to get everything that's in the 36-page document on the future relationship agreed because Prime Minister Johnson decided we are going to have everything concluded by the end of the year.

"It's just not possible. Especially if we have to make a decision about the transition by July 1."

The commissioner added that the EU was "certainly open to suggestions" on how to manage the situation politically, but the "wisest thing" would be to not set deadlines.

He added: “We need to wake up to this reality that gamesmanship and brinkmanship are not going to work on this occasion.

“If you want to do a deal together I wish you well, but I’m hearing messages from the various players in this town that it won’t be as easy as the United Kingdom and the United States think, certainly it won’t be as easy as the United Kingdom thinks for the United Kingdom to strike a deal that actually meets the objectives of the administration here.”

In response a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said: “The Political Declaration is an agreement by us and the EU to meet that timescale.

"The Prime Minister has been clear on this throughout, there will be no extension to that.”

Alain Tolhurst

EXCL Overseas Territories should join UK and send MPs to Westminster, says former minister

3 days 18 hours ago
Gibraltar is one of 14 British Overseas Territories
Gibraltar is one of 14 British Overseas Territories

The British Overseas Territories should be invited to become equal members of the United Kingdom after Brexit, according to a former Conservative minister.

In an interview with The House magazine, John Penrose said the likes of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands should also send MPs to represent them at Westminster.

The MP for Weston-super-Mare, who served under both David Cameron and Theresa May, said it would show that the UK was "committed to being a global nation post-Brexit".

Britain has 14 Overseas Territories which are fully autonomous while remaining under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the UK.

As well as Gibraltar and the Falklands, they also include Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and Montserrat.

Mr Penrose said: "What I am suggesting is they should be at least offered the chance to have an equivalent kind of devolution settlement that has already been agreed and negotiated with Scotland, with Wales and Northern Ireland.".

The Overseas Territories would then become “equal elements” of the UK with the “same status” as Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, he continued.

“They would send MPs to the Westminster parliament here, they would have their own devolved governments like the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, but it would just mean that it would be constitutionally stable, properly integrated, modern status for these overseas territories.

“It would show that we are committed to being a global nation post-Brexit.”

Mr Penrose argued the proposals would provide more “constitutional stability” surrounding the Overseas Territories, with the UK currently in dispute over Gibraltar with Spain and the Chagos Islands with Mauritius.

“Until we have a stable settlement, there is always going to be a risk of something blowing up,” he said.

The former Northern Ireland minister denied the move would be a return to Britain’s imperialist past.

He said: “People might make that argument but because we are offering and suggesting that these territories become equal parts of the United Kingdom, it’s hard to make an imperialist argument about this at all. It is clearly something that is talking about equal status.”

Mr Penrose said it would depend on the devolution settlement as to whether the Overseas Territories, such as the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, are subject to the same tax regime as the rest of the UK.

And he argued it would present opportunities for the Overseas Territories to export goods, such as lobsters from Tristan da Cunha, into the UK internal market with fewer restrictions.

“It just makes the trading ties and links between our respective parts of the UK a great deal simpler, a great deal more friction-free,” he said.

A spokesperson for the UK Overseas Territories Association says: “We are unaware of any formal consultation with the elected Governments of the UK Overseas Territories on this issue.”

Sebastian Whale

John Penrose: Invite the Overseas Territories to join the UK post-Brexit

3 days 18 hours ago
Gibraltar is one of 14 British Overseas Territories
Gibraltar is one of 14 British Overseas Territories

The Tories are in a commanding position to address the many outstanding issues that have accumulated over the past few years. From boundary reforms to a bold offer to the Overseas Territories, former minister John Penrose has plenty of ideas for how his party can make the most of its newly acquired power. The MP talks to Sebastian Whale

A sizeable majority opens many doors. With malcontents in the Commons somewhat impotent after the heady days of a hung parliament, the Conservative government can expect to get its business through with considerable confidence. For John Penrose, channelling his inner George Osborne, this presents an opportunity to “fix the roof while the sun is shining”.

What does this mean in practice? Penrose, the MP for Weston-Super-Mare since 2005, wants to address some outstanding issues. They range from abolishing the Fixed-Term Parliament Act (FTPA) or amending the legislation so that more than 50% of MPs are required to support an election for one to take place, as opposed to two-thirds. Conversely, he argues changes to standing orders should require the backing of two-thirds of the Commons to ensure they receive cross-party consent. Weary from the actions of former speaker John Bercow, he also proposes a consent mechanism be introduced if a chair wishes to interpret standing orders in a new way.

“It is far, far better to do this now when there isn’t contention,” he tells me over coffee in Portcullis House. The Tories pledged to abolish the FTPA in their election manifesto.

Penrose, the Prime minister’s anti-corruption tsar, is also leading the charge on another Conservative bugbear. Over the festive period, he helped coordinate a letter to Boris Johnson, published in the Sunday Telegraph, calling for changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries to be made “as fast as possible”. Penrose and five fellow Tories, including Liam Fox, Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Sir Graham Brady, argue the current system, which sees discrepancies in the sizes of constituencies, is unfair.

Parliament approved the principle of reducing the number of MPs back in 2011, but successive governments have stalled over implementation. In September 2018, the Boundary Commission published final recommendations for a new electoral map that saw the number of MPs cut from 650 to 600 and constituencies made more equal in size, with voters ranging from 71,031 to 78,507 per seat.

Due to opposition from rival parties, the Tories have not been in a position to get the reforms over the line. But with 365 Conservative MPs on the green benches, the party has the political space to revisit the proposals. Downing St has signalled that it is prepared to follow through.

Rather than get hung up on whether MPs reduce in overall number, Penrose argues addressing constituency discrepancies is the number one priority. “The crucial thing, and this is important for democratic legitimacy, is the equalisation,” he says.

Penrose believes that the stakes are markedly high. “We are at a time where populists are making hay right the way through western democracies. Any hint of democratic illegitimacy is extremely dangerous. The problem that we face is that there are huge unjustifiable variations in the size of constituencies and, therefore, in the value of your vote versus mine depending on where you happen to live.”

According to analysis by Electoral Calculus, under the proposed changes the Tories would have secured a majority of 104 at the election. Could pursuing the reforms appear to the average voter like gerrymandering? “I would respectfully but strongly refute that argument. Gerrymandering is creating an unfairness. Gerrymandering is not eliminating an unfairness which is what this is. It’s about legitimacy,” replies Penrose.

 “We are at a time where populists are making hay right the way through western democracies. Any hint of democratic illegitimacy is extremely dangerous"

Given the UK stuck by its first-past-the-post electoral system in the 2011 AV referendum, Penrose says work must be done to ensure it is “as legitimate as possible”. While stressing he has no personal preference, he warns MPs that they would need to consider the optics of voting to keep the number of MPs at 650 – and thus at greater cost to the taxpayer – following the “slap in the face” that was delivered to the political class at the election. As for those whose seat may disappear under the new electoral map, Penrose says the overall number of MPs makes little difference.

With the UK embarking on a new life outside of the European Union, Penrose, who voted Remain, wants to convey that Brexit does not equate to pulling up the drawbridge. As a gesture in this direction, the former Northern Ireland minister proposes offering Overseas Territories the opportunity to become fully-fledged members of the UK.  “That means that they are no longer captives of a history which started off originally with the empire but instead they are an equal part of the rest of the United Kingdom,” he explains. 

Penrose argues that the Overseas Territories, which include Gibraltar, Bermuda and Anguilla, should be given the chance to negotiate an equivalent devolution settlement to those arranged with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and have representation in parliament.

“They would send MPs to the Westminster parliament here, they would have their own devolved governments like the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament,” he says. “It would show that we are committed to being a global nation post-Brexit.” 

Britain has 14 Overseas Territories which are fully autonomous while remaining under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the UK. Penrose says it would be up to the individual Overseas Territories as to how they secured consent for joining. “The important thing is there should be an open-handed, generous-hearted offer on the table for as many of them that want to pick it up,” he says.

He argues it would depend on the devolution settlement as to whether the Overseas Territories, such as the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands – renowned tax havens – are subject to the same tax regime as the rest of the UK. And he says that it would present opportunities for the Overseas Territories to export goods, such as lobsters from Tristan da Cunha, into the UK internal market with fewer restrictions. “It just makes the trading ties and links between our respective parts of the UK a great deal simpler, a great deal more friction-free,” he says.

The UK already has disputes over some Overseas Territories, including Gibraltar with Spain, the Falkland Islands with Argentina and the Chagos Islands with Mauritius. Penrose argues his idea could provide clarity. “If you haven’t regularised and created a stable settlement of the one I’m describing, there is always a risk that somewhere around the globe some sort of geopolitical, tectonic plate will shift.” He adds: “Until we have a stable settlement, there is always going to be a risk of something blowing up.”

Does Penrose envisage this proposal solving the vexed issue of Gibraltar as the UK prepares to look at the future relationship with the EU? “If Gibraltar wanted to do it and we made the offer, then that would be what would go ahead,” he replies. Though he is quick to dampen fears about war with Spain, he adds: “Gibraltar is one example, but there are other Overseas Territories where you will need to mount a carefully diplomatic push to make sure that the neighbours understood what we were doing, why we were doing it, why they shouldn’t feel threatened by it and see it as an opportunity. The crucial thing, of course, is local self-determination, local consent. It’s got to be their choice.”

Penrose is keen to stress that this would not be a return to Britain’s imperialist past. But after leaving a 28-member bloc, would it not look like empire re-building?  “No, I don’t think it does,” he says. “People might make that argument but because we are offering and suggesting that these territories become equal parts of the United Kingdom, it’s hard to make an imperialist argument about this at all. It is clearly something that is talking about equal status.”

It remains to be seen whether this is a proposal currently being considered in No 10. A spokesperson for the UK Overseas Territories Association says: “We are unaware of any formal consultation with the elected Governments of the UK Overseas Territories on this issue.”

Penrose was at home in an “exhausted heap” when the exit poll landed on Thursday 12 December. After the initial joy ebbed away, thoughts turned to the task at hand.  “When it came out, it was a combination of elation and relief, I’ve got to say. But also, quickly followed up by a pretty sobering realisation that, alright, we have now got to deliver,” he says.

Sebastian Whale

Lib Dem peer compares post-Brexit Britain to Nazi Germany during Lords debate

4 days 17 hours ago
Lord Greaves
Lord Greaves said people were feeling a "sense of loss that is akin to bereavement" following the Brexit vote.

A Liberal Democrat peer compared post-Brexit Britain to Nazi Germany during a debate on Boris Johnson's Brexit plans.

Lord Greaves said he was concerned EU nationals could face treatment "reminiscent" of 1930's Germany as he urged the Government to do more to combat "hostility" after the UK’s exit from the bloc.

The controversial comments came as peers debated amendments to Boris Johnson's Withdrawal Bill, which seeks to cement 31 January as the UK's official exit date from the European Union.

Speaking in the upper chamber he said: "I am fearful on the 31st January that some things may happen in some places which could be reminiscent of things happening in Germany in the early 1930s.

"I am worried because there is that sentiment among a hostility minority of the population and I'd like to know what the government is trying to stop this happening."

Lord Greaves also hit out at "unfeeling hard-headed Tories" as he claimed the Brexit debate had caused "very serious wounds" in the country.

"People are moaning, people are crying at night when they go to sleep, they are crying in the morning when they wake up," he added.

"And all they get from the unfeeling hard headed Tories is moans. They are feeling a sense of loss that is akin to bereavement and a grieving process has only just begun."

But Labour peer Lord Grocott said the comments left him "reeling", adding: "He's just made a comparison...between Britain on Febraury 1st this year, and Nazi Germany in 1933....that seems to be stretching the point just a bit."

Lord Greaves then defended his remarks, saying some European citizens were now afraid to go into shops because of their accents.

"The day after the referendum, people had their windows put in, people were abused in the street, paint was daubed on people's houses, that kind of thing," he said.

"All I know is that talking to EU citizens here, I know people who are reluctant to go into shops now if they are not known in those ships because of their accent, and the attitude that people might have towards them."

And he said the behaviour was "widespread but not very frequent", adding: "I am very worried that on the 1st February and 2nd February there will be a wave of this kind of thing."

John Johnston

Boris Johnson calls on the public to pay for Big Ben to bong for Brexit

5 days 1 hour ago
Houses of Parliament
It would cost £500,000 to restore the bong in Big Ben to chime on 31 January

Boris Johnson is planning a huge fundraising drive so that Big Ben can chime at the moment the UK leaves the EU, he has revealed.

The Prime Minister said he wanted the public to "bung a bob for a Big Ben bong" at 11pm on 31 January.

The iconic clock tower is currently silent for restoration work, and the cost of bringing it back for a one-off occasion is estimated at £500,000, Mr Johnson told BBC Breakfast.

Pro-Brexit Tory MP Mark Francois has called for the bell to chime at the moment the UK officially leaves the EU, although it had been thought that the Government did not support it.

But Mr Johnson said: "We’re working up a plan so people can bung a bob for a Big Ben bong, because everybody knows Big Ben is being refurbished, they’ve seemed to have taken away the clapper away.

"So we need to restore the clapper in order to bong Big Ben on Brexit night.

"That is expensive so we’re looking at whether people might want...we’re looking at how we can fund it."

The House of Commons Commission discussed funding the move on Monday but ruled it out for financial and logistical reasons. 

IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL

Elsewhere in the interview, Mr Johnson suggested he now supports scrapping the existing Iran nuclear deal and replacing it with one negotiated by Donald Trump.

It comes amid pressure from the US President, who has called on the UK to join America in withdrawing from the so-called JCPOA.

"My point to our American friends are look, somehow or other we’ve got to stop the Iranians requiring a nuclear weapon, that’s what the JCPOA does. But if we’re going to get rid of it we need a replacement.

“The problem with the JCPOA..from the American perspective it’s a flawed agreement, it expires, plus it was negotiated by President Obama. 

“If we’re going to get rid of it, let’s replace it with the Trump deal and I think that would be a great way forward.”

The Prime Minister meanwhile stayed tight-lipped over the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to quit being senior Royals, and whether press coverage of Meghan Markle had 'colonial undertones'.  

He said: “The Royal family is a fantastic asset for this country, I am absolutely confident they’re going to sort this out. And do you know what I think they’ll be able to sort it out easier without any particular commentary from me.”

Anahita Hossein-Pour

Boris Johnson's Brexit deal 'bad for the Union and economy', says Theresa May's former top aide

5 days 17 hours ago
Gavin Barwell
Gavin Barwell was Theresa May's chief of staff for two years.

Boris Johnson's Brexit deal is "bad for our Union and for our economy", Theresa May's former top aide has declared.

Gavin Barwell, who was the former Prime Minister's chief of staff for two years, also warned there was no chance of the Government agreeing a new trade deal with the EU by the end of the year.

He spoke out as he made his maiden speech in the House of Lords.

Peers are debating the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which will put the UK's departure from the EU into law.

Mr Johnson managed to renegotiate the deal which had been previously agreed with Brussels when Mrs May was still in Number 10.

The biggest change will see customs checks carried out on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, effectively putting a border in the Irish Sea.

The new-look deal also makes clear the UK will have a more distant economic relationship with the EU after Brexit, something Lord Barwell said was "akin to Canada's" trading arrangement with the bloc.

He said: "I regret ... these changes - I believe they are bad for our Union and for our economy.

"However, I believe the referendum result must be implemented. People have waited too long already, and having spent two years telling people they needed to compromise to achieve that, I need to take my own advice."

The former MP also hit out at the PM's insistence that the post-Brexit implementation period, during which the UK will still follow the EU's rules, must end at the end of this year.

He said: "I understand why the Government doesn't want to extend the implementation period, but there simply isn't time to negotiate the entire future relationship, have it ratified by national parliaments and for business to prepare to implement it in 11 months.

"As (European Commission) President von der Leyen has said, we are going to have to prioritise.

"The main risk is not no deal, it is a very basic initial deal. It is in our interests for everything to be decided in one go because the moment that is no longer the case, we risk getting into a repeat of the divorce negotiations, where the EU ensured its three priorities were dealt with first."

However, Lord Barwell also called on the EU to compromise with the UK, adding: "History will judge us both badly if we get this wrong."

Kevin Schofield

Labour leadership hopeful Clive Lewis says 'element of racism' helped cause Brexit

1 week ago
Clive Lewis MP
The Labour leadership contender said 'unsavoury' elements had contributed to Brexit.

"An element of racism" lay behind Britain's push to leave the European Union, Clive Lewis has said.

The Labour frontbencher - who is among those vying to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as party leader - said that while he did not believe "every single person that voted for Brexit is a racist", there were "very unsavoury" drivers behind the vote to quit the bloc.

"I think part of the Brexit campaign and part of the undertone of Brexit from some politicians, Nigel Farage and others, had racism at its core, at its heart," he told Sky News' Sophy Ridge.

Mr Lewis added: "I think for anyone to say there was not an element of racism in the Brexit project as an endeavour were basically wrong… 

"Now that doesn’t mean that every single person that voted for Brexit is a racist. Some of my family voted for Brexit. 

"But I think there were drivers within that campaign that certainly were very unsavoury and what I would call racist."

Mr Lewis - who on Sunday launched his manifesto for the leadership contest - has so far struggled to scoop up the 22 nominations needed to make it through to the next round of the contest.

The Labour MP, who is half-Grenadian, also urged his parliamentary colleagues to tackle "structural sexism" and "structural racism" in the party as he was pressed on the reason for his lack of support.

He said: "Do I think if you go to the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and speak to the members they are overtly sexist? No, I don’t, plus I don’t believe they are overtly racist but these issues, these things run through our society."

Mr Lewis added: "I have never said that it is because of my colour that I am not being nominated by my parliamentary colleagues but what I was saying is if you want to understand why we haven’t had a woman, why we haven’t had a person of colour as leader of the Labour party then we have to look at the entirety of the issue which is that those structural issues do exist."

The latest total of MP nominations show that the shadow minister has the backing of four colleagues, with his nearest rival Emily Thornberry scooping ten.

Frontrunner Sir Keir Starmer has 68 Labour MPs on board, followed by Rebecca Long-Bailey on 26, Lisa Nandy on 24 and Jess Phillips on 22.

Mr Lewis said: "Clearly I wish my mum could nominate me as well, that would be fantastic wouldn’t it?  But it’s not quite in the rules.  

"Look, it’s hard and I think some of the things that I’m saying aren’t necessarily things which everyone after a devastating defeat want to hear but the reality is that unless we transform ourselves as a party, transform how we organise, transform the culture of our party, stop the tribalism within our party, we won’t be able to win in the next five years."

The Labour leadership contender, who has described himself as a republican, also floated plans for a referendum on the monarchy, arguing that it would help give "people a real say over the kind of country they want to live in".

"I think we’ve seen this week there is a great love for the Royal Family in this country but there are also I think some concerns about how it will go forward into the future," he said.

'SHARP POLICY IDEAS'

Mr Lewis's manifesto - dubbed 'Transform to Win' - urges the party to scrap the House of Lords, introduce proportional representation, and hand "maximum devolution" to Scotland and Wales in a bid to help the party reconnect with voters.

It meanwhile floats open selections for all candidates in the party, a new "independent complaints function" to help it tackle racism and sexism complaints, and a major shake-up of the party's ruling National Executive Committee to make its running more transparent.

Launching the document, Mr Lewis said: "So far, this leadership election has been dominated by questions of factionalism and sectarianism. 

"I’d rather it be dominated by sharp policy ideas that map out a clear and credible route back to government. I call on my fellow leadership candidates to share with us the ideas they would implement if they were elected as leader."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

EU will 'not be rushed' into agreeing post-Brexit deals with Boris Johnson, Irish deputy PM warns

1 week ago
Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney is Ireland's deputy prime minister.

The European Union will "not be rushed" into signing off on post-Brexit agreements with Britain despite a UK law setting a fixed deadline on the talks, Ireland's deputy prime minister has warned.

The Tánaiste cast fresh doubt on Mr Johnson's "ambitious" vow not to extend the existing Brexit transition period, in which the UK will stay aligned to EU rules, beyond 31 December this year.

The Conservative manifesto commits the Prime Minister to the end-of-year deadline, teeing up a race to secure deals with the EU on areas including trade, security and aviation.

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed by MPs this week enshrined in British law the commitment not to extend the so-called 'implementation period' December 2020 - meaning UK and EU negotiators will have just 11 months to negotiate fresh agreements.

Mr Coveney said that while the fixed deadline was "a matter for Boris Johnson", the EU would not be bumped into agreeing pacts with the UK to suit its timeframe.

"When people talk about the future relationship in the UK in particular they seem to only talk about a future trade agreement," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr.

"Actually, there's much more to this than that."

"There's fishing, there's aviation, there's data. And there's so many other things."

He added: "I know that Prime Minister Johnson has set a very ambitious timetable to get this done, he's even put it into British law. But just because a British Parliament decides that British law says something, doesn't mean that that law applies to the other 27 countries of the European Union. 

"And so the European Union will approach this on the basis of getting the best deal possible, a fair and balanced deal to ensure that the UK and the EU can interact as friends in the future. But the EU will not be rushed on this just because Britain passes laws."

But Security Minister Brandon Lewis insisted it was an "achievable" aim to get an over-arching post-Brexit agreement signed off before Britain leaves the EU transition period at the end of 2020.

He told the same programme: "Let’s remember we are talking about a prime minister where people said we couldn’t reopen the Withdrawal Agreement - he did that in under a hundred days, got a new agreement. 

"[People] said we couldn’t get it through parliament, we got the General Election, got a majority and just this week we had that vote, we are leaving the European Union."

'FRIENDS'

The Irish deputy PM also urged British politicians to ignore calls to adopt the "language of enemies not friends" as the two sides thrash out a post-Brexit relationship.

He warned: "Both sides in this negotiation, in the next stage of Brexit, have a vested interest in working together, not to try and outmanoeuvre each other. 

"We need to put in place, from a trade perspective, a deal that respects the fact that the EU has got to insist on equivalence and a level playing field if there's going to be free trade in the future. And the UK also has its interests in terms of the relationship it wants to develop with other parts of the world taken into account as well."

Mr Coveney's comments come after the first face-to-face talks between the Prime Minister and Ursula von der Leyen, the newly-elected President of the European Commission.

Ms von der Leyen used a trip to the UK this week - where she held discussions with Mr Johnson at Number 10 - to argue that it would be "basically impossible to negotiate all" elements of the two sides' future relationship by the December deadline.

And she warned: "Our partnership cannot and will not be the same as before.

"It will not be as close as before because with every choice comes a consequence. With every decision, comes a trade-off.

"Without the free movement of people, you cannot have the free movement of capital, goods and services.

"Without a level playing field on environment, labour and state aid, you cannot have the highest quality access to the world's largest single market.

"The more divergence there is, the more distant the partnership will be." 

But a Downing Street spokesperson said Mr Johnson had urged the EU chief to kick off talks "on the future partnership and Canada-style FTA [Free Trade Agreement] as soon as possible after January 31".

They added: "The PM was clear that the UK would not extend the Implementation Period beyond 31 December 2020; and that any future partnership must not involve any kind of alignment or ECJ [European Court of Justice] jurisdiction. He said the UK would also maintain control of UK fishing waters and our immigration system."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Harry Dunn death: US brands UK extradition request ‘highly inappropriate’

1 week 1 day ago
Harry Dunn family
Harry Dunn's family praised the move as a 'huge step forward'

The Home Office’s extradition request for the wife of a US intelligence officer, charged with death by dangerous driving, has been branded “highly inappropriate” by US officials. 

Anne Sacoolas, who has previously insisted she will not return to the UK voluntarily, was charged in connection with the death of Harry Dunn, a 19-year-old motorcyclist. 

Dunn died after his motorbike collided with a car outside RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire in August last year. 

The suspect claimed diplomatic immunity shortly after the incident and was able to return to the US, sparking international controversy. 

A Home Office spokesman said on Friday: “This is now a decision for the US authorities.” 

However, the US state department deemed the request “highly inappropriate”, adding: “The use of an extradition treaty to attempt to return the spouse of a former diplomat by force would establish an extraordinarily troubling precedent.” 

A spokesman for Dunn’s family hailed the move as “a huge step towards achieving justice for Harry and making good on the promise that they made to him on the night he died that they would secure justice for him”. 

State department officials are determining whether or not they believe the extradition request to be “in proper order”, before it is handed over to the department of justice and the US courts.

Boris Johnson had previously said he did not "think it can be right" for the system to be used in this way.

He added: "I hope Anne Sacoolas will come back and engage properly with the processes of law as they are carried out in this country."

 

Boris Johnson had previously said he did not "think it can be right" for the system to be used in this way.

 

He added: "I hope Anne Sacoolas will come back and engage properly with the processes of law as they are carried out in this country."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

MPs finally back law which will take the UK out of the European Union on 31 January

1 week 2 days ago
UK and EU flags
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill has finally cleared all of its Commons hurdles.

The UK's departure from the European Union has taken another major step forward after MPs finally gave approval to Boris Johnson's Brexit plans.

The Commons voted 330 to 231  to approve the Withdrawal Agreement Bill at its third reading, putting an end to months of late night votes and government defeats.

Although the draft legislation still needs to be approved by the House of Lords, it means the UK will definitely leave the European Union on 31 January, over 10 months after the original 29 March 2019 exit date.

Speaking before the vote, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said: "The Prime Minister obviously made it a priority after winning a majority to get Brexit done and to move the country forward, and securing the legislation's passage through the Commons is a signficant positive step for deliver that."

Winding up the debate on the bill, Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay said: "This evening the bill will pass to the other place with a very clear mandate from this House that now is the time to move forwards.

"I anticipate constructive scrutiny as we would expect from the other place but I have no doubt that their lordships will have heard the resounding message from the British people on 12 December and they will have seen the clear will of this House.

"This bill will secure our departure from the European Union with a deal that gives certainty to businesses, protects the rights of our citizens and ensures that we regain control of our money, our borders, our laws and our trade policy."

Labour voted against the bill, and shadow Brexit minister Thangam Debbonaire said: "We will focus entirely on voting against the entire bill at third reading and no that’s not voting against Brexit ,it’s voting against this bill.

"To all the members opposite who think they’re about to vote to get Brexit done they must know what lies ahead...they know they must know that trade negotiations take time. They must know even if we are in alignment now the Government stated intention is to diverge and so be in no doubt trade negotiations will take longer than the precious few months that they've allowed."

Unless there is a significant challenge from peers it is likely the bill will receive Royal Assent on 22 January, before the European Parliament ratifies the deal on 29 January.

The thumping 99-vote majority for Mr Johnson's deal comes after Theresa May was dealt three crushing Commons defeats on her Brexit proposals, leading to a series of delays and her eventual resignation.

In October, Mr Johnson won a slim 30 vote majority for his Brexit plans, but chose not to proceed with the process after MPs rejected his three-day timetable for passing the legislation through Parliament.

He used the defeat to press for the December election in which he vowed to deliver the UK's exit by the end of January.

The legislation passed by MPs has also enshrined in law the commitment not to extend the post-Brexit transition period beyond December 2020, meaning UK and EU negotiators will have just 11 months to negotiate a new trade deal.

But the move was criticised by newly appointed European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen, who described the timetable as "very, very tight".

Speaking ahead of talks with the Mr Johnson earlier this week, she said: "Without an extension of the transition period beyond 2020, you cannot expect to agree on every single aspect of our new partnership. We will have to prioritise."

John Johnston

Boris Johnson says UK 'ready' to start trade talks as EU chief brands deadline 'impossible'

1 week 3 days ago
Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen
Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen.

Boris Johnson has told the president of the European Commission that Britain is "ready" to kick off talks on a post-Brexit trade deal despite her warning his timeframe for an agreement is "impossible".

The Prime Minister used talks with Ursula von der Leyen at Downing Street to double down on his vow not to extend the existing Brexit transition period, in which the UK will stay aligned to EU rules, beyond 31 December this year.

His message came after Ms Von der Leyen, who recently took over from Jean Claude-Juncker as the Commission's top official, cast fresh doubt on Britain's deadline for a deal.

In a speech at the London School of Economics, the EU Commission chief said: "Without an extension of the transition period beyond 2020, you cannot expect to agree on every single aspect of our new partnership.

"We will have to prioritise."

Ms Von der Leyen warned that leaving the EU would involve the renegotiation of "600 international agreements" as well as a new free-trade pact.

She said: "It is basically impossible to negotiate all [of the areas]."

And she warned the UK not to diverge too strongly from EU rules to avoid losing preferential access to its markets.

"Our partnership cannot and will not be the same as before," she said.

"It will not be as close as before because with every choice comes a consequence. With every decision, comes a trade-off.

"Without the free movement of people, you cannot have the free movement of capital, goods and services.

"Without a level playing field on environment, labour and state aid, you cannot have the highest quality access to the world's largest single market.

"The more divergence there is, the more distant the partnership will be."

Downing Street described the meeting between the two leaders - who attended the same school in Belgium - as "positive".

In a statement released following the talks, Number 10 said: "On Brexit, the PM stressed that his immediate priority was to implement the Withdrawal Agreement by January 31. They discussed the progress of ratification in the UK and in the European Parliament.

"He said the UK wanted a positive new UK and EU partnership, based on friendly co-operation, our shared history, interests and values.

"The PM reiterated that we wanted a broad free trade agreement covering goods and services, and co-operation in other areas."

But a spokesperson added: "The PM was clear that the UK would not extend the Implementation Period beyond 31 December 2020; and that any future partnership must not involve any kind of alignment or ECJ jurisdiction. He said the UK would also maintain control of UK fishing waters and our immigration system.

"The PM made clear that we would continue to ensure high standards in the UK in areas like workers' rights, animal welfare, agriculture and the environment.

"The PM said the UK was ready to start negotiations on the future partnership and Canada-style FTA as soon as possible after January 31."

The talks came as MPs continued their scrutiny of the Prime Minister's Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which sets the UK up to leave the European Union on 31 January.

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Boris Johnson to tell new EU Commission chief that trade deal must be struck by end of 2020

1 week 4 days ago
Boris Johnson
The Prime Minister will sit down for talks with Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday.

Britain and the EU must thrash out a trade deal by the end of 2020, Boris Johnson will tell the new president of the European Commission.

In an uncompromising message, the Prime Minister will urge Ursula von der Leyen to ensure talks on Britain's future relationship with the bloc are finished "on time" as the pair hold their first face-to-face talks since she took on the job.

The Conservative manifesto made clear that the Government will not seek to extend the existing Brexit transition period, in which the UK will stay aligned to EU rules, beyond 31 December this year.

Ms Von Der Leyen has already described the timetable to strike a replacement trade deal with Brussels as “extremely challenging”.

But Number 10 said the PM would use the meeting to emphasise his call to agree a "confident and positive future relationship by the end of December 2020".

A spokesperson added: "He is expected to tell president Von Der Leyen that, having waited for over three years to get Brexit done, both British and EU citizens rightly expect negotiations on an ambitious free trade agreement (FTA) to conclude on time.

"The Prime Minister will likely underline that the upcoming negotiations will be based on an ambitious FTA, not on alignment."

Former German defence minister Ms Von Der Leyen, who has taken over from Jean-Claude Juncker in the crucial Brussels role, will deliver a speech at the London School of Economics on Wednesday before sitting down for talks in Downing Street.

She has previously warned that the British timetable to strike an agreement leaves "very little time" for the two sides to strike a deal.

She said in December: "In case we cannot conclude an agreement by the end of 2020, we will face again a cliff-edge situation.

"And this would clearly harm our interest - but it will impact more the UK than us."

The meeting comes as the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, finalising Britain's exit from the bloc, continues its journey through the House of Commons.

A raft of opposition amendments to the bill were defeated on Tuesday night, including a bid to firm up the residence rights of European citizens in Britain after the UK leaves the EU.

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

David Lawrence: Post-Brexit trade deals with the EU and the US will define our future. But MPs could be left without a say

1 week 6 days ago
Boris Johnson and US vice-president Mike Pence outside No10 Downing Street
Boris Johnson meets US Vice President Mike Pence for talks at 10 Downing Street on 05 September 2019 in London

MPs who value Parliamentary sovereignty, and who understand the need for democratic accountability for post-Brexit trade deals, should support Caroline Lucas’s amendment, writes David Lawrence

Last autumn saw a series of showdowns between the Executive and Parliament: the Benn Act, Johnson’s attempted prorogation, delays to his Withdrawal Agreement Bill and ultimately the calling of another snap election were all symptomatic of a battle which, aided by John Bercow, pitted MPs against the Government of the day. 

This battle is now over. Since his huge victory in the election, Johnson has removed all Parliamentary scrutiny provisions in his new Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), which begins its committee stages in the Commons tomorrow. This means MPs won’t get a say on the UK-EU Future Relationship. 

The previous WAB’s Clause 31 was essentially a compromise clause designed to reassure MPs that they would not be excluded from the Brexit process. The Clause would have given MPs a vote on the initial negotiating objectives, regular reporting during negotiations and a vote on the final deal. This went far beyond the low level of oversight normally afforded to Parliament during trade negotiations. 

However the new WAB removes all of these provisions. A group of cross-party MPs, led by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, have tabled an amendment (New Clause 6) which would give MPs a vote on the UK-EU deal as well as increased transparency and scrutiny. If selected, the amendment will be debated on Wednesday, but as things stand no Conservative MPs have put their name to it. The centrality of the WAB to this Government’s project means amendments will be heavily whipped. 

The problem with removing scrutiny provisions, aside from the usual concerns about democratic accountability and transparency, is that it sets a worrying precedent. Many civil society organisations and the general public are wary about Johnson’s plans for a trade deal with Donald Trump, which could lower food standards, constrain action on climate change and affect our health services. If MPs are left out of the UK-EU Future Relationship, it seems unlikely that the Government will grant them a vote on a US trade deal – or indeed other upcoming deals with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the Trans-Pacific area. 

The Commons had unprecedented success in increasing its powers between the elections of 2017 to 2019: never before had Parliament taken charge of international treaty negotiations by mandating the Executive to negotiate in a certain way, but the Benn Act did exactly that. Never before had a new Prime Minister suffered so many defeats, or had the Commons taken control of the order paper to stop the Government of the day achieving its raison d’être. 

With Johnson’s victory in December, this era has come to an end: the irony of Brexit is that, although many voted for Parliament to take back sovereignty over UK affairs, MEPs in Brussels will have more of a say over the UK-EU Future Relationship than British MPs. And the irony of Johnson’s large majority is that it decreases the amount of influence Tory MPs have over the Brexit process, compared to if the victory had been narrow.

MPs who value Parliamentary sovereignty, and who understand the need for democratic accountability for post-Brexit trade, should support Lucas’s amendment. The amendment is not about frustrating Brexit – it would be impossible in this Parliament anyway – but is about safeguarding a process which ensures there is transparency and democracy built into our treaty-making system. 

The UK lags far behind the EU and US when it comes to democratic oversight of trade policy, and Johnson’s WAB was an opportunity to change this. Instead, unless Lucas’s amendment gets unexpected support from backbench Conservatives, MPs will not get a say over what is undoubtedly our most important trading relationship, and probably the defining policy issue of our time.

David Lawrence is senior political advisor at the Trade Justice Movement, a network of nearly 60 civil society organisations campaigning for trade rules that work for people and planet.

Sebastian Whale

Jess Phillips hints she would back re-joining the EU as Labour leader

1 week 6 days ago
Jess Phillips
Jess Phillips is one of five candidates to have officially joined the Labour leadership race

Jess Phillips has suggested she would back re-joining the European Union if she wins the Labour leadership contest.

The Birmingham Yardley MP said if “it is more economically viable” to be in the bloc once we are out then she will “fight for that regardless of how difficult that argument is to make”.

But Sir Keir Starmer, her rival in the race to replace Jeremy Corbyn, insisted Labour must now “focus on what comes next” rather than the 2016 referendum.

Speaking to BBC One’s Andrew Marr show, Ms Phillips said under her the party could campaign to overturn Brexit if she felt it would be beneficial to the UK.

She said: “You would have to look at what was going on at the time. What our job is for the next three years is to hold Boris Johnson to account on all the promises. 

“So if we are living in an absolute paradise of trade and we are totally safe in the world and we are not worrying about having to constantly look to America for our safety and security then maybe I will be proven wrong.”

Ms Phillips added: “But the reality is is if our country is safer, if it is more economically viable to be in the European Union then I will fight for that regardless of how difficult that argument is to make.”

Speaking later on the same programme Sir Keir, who as shadow Brexit secretary was seen as helping move Labour to back a second referendum, insisted it was now a settled issue.

He said: “We are going to leave the EU in the next few weeks and it is important for all of us, including myself, to recognise that the argument about Leave and Remain goes with it. 

"We are leaving. We will have left the EU.

“This election blew away the argument for a second referendum, rightly or wrongly, and we have to adjust to that situation.”

The favourite with the bookies added: “So the argument has to move on and we the Labour Party need to accept that Leave/Remain, that divide, goes in a few weeks time and we need to focus on what comes next.”

Alain Tolhurst

Labour calls for delay to Brexit process if no trade deal struck with EU by end of 2020

2 weeks 2 days ago
UK and EU flags
Jeremy Corbyn will call for the extension if a free trade agreement is not struck with the EU

Labour has launched a bid to delay the Brexit process again if the Government fails to strike a trade deal with the EU by the end of the year.

Jeremy Corbyn has tabled an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, which will be debated by MPs next week, calling for the implementation period to be extended for two years unless a free trade agreement is in place.

Boris Johnson has previously ruled out applying for an extension to the period, during which the UK will continue to follow EU rules and which is due to run out on 31 December.

That has led to fears that the UK could end up leaving the EU without a deal, forcing it to follow World Trade Organisation rules from the start of 2021.

Under the terms of the Labour amendment, a government minister would be forced to seek an extension if no FTA has been agreed by the middle of June.

In an explanatory note, Labour said: “This new clause would restore the role for parliament in deciding whether to extend transition to avoid a WTO (World Trade Organisation) Brexit.”

However, the Conservatives’ 80-seat majority means the amendment has no chance of being passed by MPs.

The amendment says: “A minister of the crown must seek to secure agreement in the joint committee to a single decision to extend the implementation period by two years, in accordance with Article 132 of the Withdrawal Agreement unless one or more condition in subsection is met.

"Those conditions are: (a) it is before 15 June 2020; (b) an agreement on the future trade relationship has been concluded; (c) the House of Commons has passed a motion in the form set out in subsection (3) and the House of Lords has considered a motion to take note of the government's intention not to request an extension."

Labour has also tabled another amendment seeking to protect the right of unaccompanied refugee children to be reunited with their families in the UK after Brexit.

The Government dumped that pledge when it reintroduced the Withdrawal Bill after the election, despite previously committing to it.

Kevin Schofield

Brexit and Remain campaign chiefs in joint call for unity after 'decade of division'

2 weeks 4 days ago
Brexit
The plea follows years of bitter debate over Britain's departure from the European Union.

The former heads of both the Leave and Remain campaigns have joined forces to call for a "decade of reconnection" after years of "division" in Britain.

Both Matthew Elliot, who led the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, and Will Straw, who was director of Britain Stronger in Europe, have put their names to an open letter to mark the start of the 2020s.

The message has been signed by a string of cultural and political figures, including Sir Hugh Robertson of the British Olympic Association, Carolyn Fairbairn of the Confederation of British Industry, GMB union chief Tim Roache, and Mike Sharrock of the British Paralympic Association.

It calls on Brits to "reach out" to someone they do not know this year in a bid to "start rebuilding connections between neighbours and fellow citizens" after a bruising decade in politics.

It says: "As we start this new year and new decade, our country feels more fragmented than any of us would like. Too often we hear that our divisions – by class or geography, by politics, age, race or by faith – have come to define us. 

“If we are not happy with the state of our society, it falls to us all to do something about it. New Year is the time for resolutions and on this first day of the 2020s, we urge others to join us in making a resolution for the new decade.

“Our resolution is to reconnect. To reach out to just one person we don’t know, or from whom we have drifted apart. To start rebuilding connections between neighbours and fellow citizens."

The signatories add: “While our politics and media have become more polarised we, as people, have not. There is much that we share with each other: sit any two people down together and they will find some common ground.

“So the power of reconnection will depend on how many of us, as citizens, step up together. Every institution, too – not just government but education, business, sport, civic society and faith – should play its part in helping bridge social divides.

“Today is about a small first step that we can all take – to leave behind a decade of division and begin our decade of reconnection.”

The letter has also been signed by a host of religious figures, with the Bishop of Leeds, Revd Nick Baines, joining Imam Qari Asim, Chair of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, in the call. 

Others putting their name to the missive include former home secretary Jacqui Smith, who chairs the Jo Cox Foundation set up in memory of the murdered MP, as well as Matt Hyde of the Scouts’ Association, Angela Salt of Girlguiding, and Glastonbury Festival's Emily Eavis.

The plea for unity came as Boris Johnson used his own New Year's message to promise to be a "prime minister for everyone", in a direct appeal to Remain supporters and those who voted against his party in December's snap election.

He told voters: "I am humbled by your support and will work every day to keep it. I am also acutely aware that there are millions of people who did not vote for me and were disappointed by the result.

"If you are one of them, I want to reassure you that I will be a Prime Minister for everyone, not just those who voted for me. I know that you love this country no less, simply because you voted for another party or wanted to Remain.

"More than that, I want to work with you, as friends and equals, as we build the future this United Kingdom deserves."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Boris Johnson tells Remainers he will be 'prime minister for everyone' as he hails 2020s as 'decade of opportunity'

2 weeks 4 days ago
Boris Johnson
The PM made a pitch for post-Brexit unity in his New Year address.

Boris Johnson has pitched himself as a "prime minister for everyone" as he tried to usher in the 2020s with a bid to heal the "division, rancour and uncertainty" in British politics.

In an upbeat New Year's message, the Conservative leader - who is on holiday in the Caribbean - said the 2020s would be "a decade of prosperity and opportunity", and vowed to repay the trust of Brits who had "lent me your vote" in the general election.

But he again took a swipe at the previous Parliament, saying MPs had used "every trick in the book to stop us leaving the EU".

The Conservative leader's New Year message comes after his party secured its biggest majority since the 1980s by sweeping up support in Labour's traditional heartlands.

Making a direct appeal to those voters who backed the party for the first time, as well as those who voted against him, Mr Johnson said: "I know that many of you do not consider yourself natural Tories and may only have lent me your vote.

"I am humbled by your support and will work every day to keep it. I am also acutely aware that there are millions of people who did not vote for me and were disappointed by the result.

"If you are one of them, I want to reassure you that I will be a Prime Minister for everyone, not just those who voted for me. I know that you love this country no less, simply because you voted for another party or wanted to Remain.

"More than that, I want to work with you, as friends and equals, as we build the future this United Kingdom deserves."

Mr Johnson said the midnight chimes of Big Ben marked "the starting gun being fired on what promises to be a fantastic year and a remarkable decade for our United Kingdom".

And he said: "As we say goodbye to 2019 we can also turn the page on the division, rancour and uncertainty which has dominated public life and held us back for far too long.

"We can start a new chapter in the history of our country, in which we come together and move forward united, unleashing the enormous potential of the British people."

Once again talking up his "oven ready" EU Withdrawal Agreement, the Prime Minister said the "first item" on his list for the New Year is "to fulfil the will of the electorate and take us out of the European Union".

But, taking a fresh swipe at MPs, Mr Johnson added: "This should have happened already, but we were thwarted by a Parliament determined to use every trick in the book to stop us leaving the EU.

"Now we have a new Parliament, elected by the people to deliver the people’s priorities, which will finally respect the referendum and deliver Brexit."

'RESISTANCE'

The Prime Minister meanwhile used his New Year's speech to reprise the other big themes of his election campaign, vowing to "get to work" on investing in the NHS, improving education standards and ensuring cities and towns outside of London and the South East are "more connected than ever before".

Mr Johnson's 2020 message comes after Jeremy Corbyn used his own address to describe Labour as "the resistance to Boris Johnson".

But the outgoing Labour leader made no direct mention of the general election result - Labour's worst since 1935 - simply saying it had been “quite the year” for his party.

Calling on people to join Labour, he echoed his manifesto message that “together we can bring about real change for our country".

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

EXCL Ministers accused of 'hiding' impact of Brexit on schools as Lib Dems complain to watchdog

2 weeks 5 days ago
Students study and write in their exercise books in class
The Lib Dems said parents had 'a right to know that their children will be healthy and safe' under Brexit.

Ministers have been accused of "hiding" the impact of Brexit on schools amid a bitter freedom of information battle with the Liberal Democrats.

The party has asked the Information Commissioner to step in after its attempts to get hold of a survey filled out by schools across the country were rejected by the Department for Education.

As a no-deal Brexit loomed late last year, education minister Lord Agnew wrote to all local councils, academy trusts and private schools saying his department required "a clearer understanding of school preparedness" for Brexit.

He called on all schools to complete a survey about their plans to mitigate the impact of leaving the bloc, urging them to get in touch with food suppliers and medical firms as well as review their data protection policies to make sure they were ready for the possibility of Britain crashing out without an agreement.

But the Lib Dems have hit out at the government after it twice rejected calls to have the survey findings published under Freedom of Information laws - something the party argues would reassure parents.

The party's education spokesperson Layla Moran told PoliticsHome: "Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have form when it comes to hiding the impact of Brexit from the public. Now, they’re refusing to tell parents the effect of Brexit on our schools."

She added: "As the Conservatives recklessly wound down the clock towards a possible no-deal Brexit in October, Ministers passed the buck for Brexit preparations on to schools and councils.

"No headteacher should have to ask suppliers if their school can get enough food and medicine should our borders grind to a halt."

“Parents have a right to know that their children will be healthy and safe."

A report by Lord Agnew which leaked to the Observer in August warned that the DfE was "heavily dependent on the actions of major suppliers and other government departments to ensure continued provision" of fresh food for school meals under a no-deal outcome.

The report also warned that Dover in Kent could face heavy travel disruption leading to cancelled exams and "pupil and staff absence".

'OVERWHELMING PUBLIC INTEREST'

In the pitch to the DfE to unveil the information, the Lib Dems said there was an "overwhelming public interest" in it being released.

They argued that publishing the survey findings would "enable the public to know if the schools in their area are prepared for leaving the European Union".

But the Department rejected the party's first request, arguing that making the survey available could hit the "formulation or development of government policy" in the future.

The DfE said: "It is in the public’s interest to ensure that Ministers are being briefed effectively on key areas that will affect the way in which they make decisions.

"However, it is important that within this area, as in all other public policy areas, officials should be able to give and receive free and frank advice to Ministers, and that the ability to do that must be protected where appropriate. 

"The Government will ultimately use the information obtained through the survey to further inform Government policy and the formulation of any more targeted advice for schools on leaving the EU – but that development of advice is ongoing and not yet resolved. "

When the Lib Dems appealed that move, the DfE launched its own internal review, and again argued that publishing the information could "prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs", "affect the free and frank exchange of views", and could "put schools off sharing information with the department in the future".

PoliticsHome understands the Lib Dems have now stepped up their battle with the DfE by filing a complaint with the UK's data watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office.

The move means the ICO will have to investigate whether the DfE has responded correctly to the call, and could see the department forced to publish the findings of the study if it the watchdog rules against it.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "It is standard practice for exemptions in the FOI act to be used where information has been gathered or will be used to inform policy making, as is the case here.

"The Prime Minister has made clear the government's first task is to get Brexit done and maximise the opportunities it will provide.

"Britain will leave the EU at the end of January 2020 and we have already made extensive preparations ahead of that, and have provided guidance for schools and councils to help them prepare."

They added: "We will respond to the ICO in the usual way."

Matt Honeycombe-Foster

Boris Johnson 'to take charge of EU trade talks' with new 'Taskforce Europe'

3 weeks ago
Boris Johnson
The new unit is expected to be run out of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office

Boris Johnson is preparing to set up a dedicated new Brexit team by the end of next month as he seeks to take control of talks on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.

The unit - reportedly dubbed ‘Taskforce Europe’ - will replace the Department for Exiting the European Union when it shuts down on 31 January, the date on which Britain is due to leave the EU.

According to both The Sunday Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday, the team will be run from the heart of government in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, with personal oversight from the Prime Minister.

It will be led by Mr Johnson’s most senior Europe adviser David Frost and will be responsible for implementing the Withdrawal Agreement as well as leading on negotiations for a free-trade agreement with the EU.

The naming of the group mirrors that of the EU side, which has set up its own ‘Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom’. 

A Government source said: "In 2020, we will move forward to establish a future relationship and free-trade agreement with the EU.

"Following the election, the Government has a clear and renewed mandate to achieve this. We want our new relationship to be based on an ambitious free-trade agreement, and a close friendship between sovereign equals."

The reports of a new unit to lead on a post-Brexit deal with the EU come after the president of the European Commission cast doubt on Mr Johnson's timetable for agreeing a pact.

Britain is currently due to remain in a transition period with the EU, staying broadly aligned with its rules, until the end of 2020.

But Mr Johnson has vowed not to extend that period, fixing a deadline to discussions on the deal that will replace it.

Ursula von der Leyen, who took over from Jean-Claude Juncker earlier this month, said she had “serious concern” over the limited time available for the second round of talks.

She told French newspaper Les Echos: "It’s not only about negotiating a free trade deal but many other subjects."

And the Commission president added: "It seems to me that on both sides we must ask ourselves seriously if all these negotiations are feasible in such a short time."

But government sources told the Mail on Sunday that Ms von der Leyen's comments were "tactics and bluster" and argued that any "genuinely held concerns about timing" should have been raised during talks on the Withdrawal Agreement.

Matt Honeycombe-Foster
Submitted by itops on Tue, 11/14/2017 - 11:47