Tue, 20 Aug 2019

The UK government doesn't expect the European Union to shift its position on Brexit for at least a month, a person familiar with the matter has said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is insisting the EU must reopen the Withdrawal Agreement it negotiated with his predecessor, Theresa May, and drop the so-called Irish backstop, a fall-back position designed to keep the border with Ireland open. That's something EU leaders have said they won't countenance.

Johnson has said the UK will leave the bloc "do or die" on October 31 - if necessary, without a deal. But members of parliament who oppose a no-deal Brexit are plotting ways to frustrate the premier.

EU leaders are waiting to see if those MPs, including members of Johnson's own Tories, are able to use proceedings in the House of Commons to tie Johnson's hands, according to the person, who declined to be named discussing government thinking. September 9 is shaping up to be an occasion when those rebels could act, they said.

That's because under an amendment to Northern Ireland legislation forced through by rebels last month, the government is required to make a statement on September 4 about progress toward restoring the Northern Ireland Executive, and hold a debate five days later. No-deal opponents could use that debate to seize control of parliament's agenda, a necessary first step to blocking no-deal.

The debate, and votes around it, will be a first indication of the strength of opposition to no-deal in parliament, and whether there is a route to tying Johnson's hands. After that, the EU will have a clearer idea of what parliamentary rebels are able to do, the person said.

Macron, Merkel

While Johnson has spoken by phone with EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron since taking office last month, he's yet to meet them in person. He's due to meet Macron and Merkel at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France at the end of August. The person said that Johnson is prepared to meet with leaders face-to-face to lay out the UK position, but that no negotiation is really possible until the bloc retreats from its red line on re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement.

In the meantime, Johnson has announced a slew of domestic policy initiatives including hiring more police, expanding prisons and ploughing more cash into the National Health Service. He's made spending commitments to the tune of about 2 billion pounds (about R37bn) a week since taking office, fuelling speculation he's preparing for an early general election.

"There's been a whole series of these announcements and Boris doesn't quite explain how he would pay for it," Labour's home affairs spokeswoman, Diane Abbott, told BBC radio on Monday. "This is a pre-election period. Even if he doesn't go ahead and have an election in the autumn, he's clearing the ground."

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