Fresh doubts have been cast over Boris Johnson’s commitment to securing a Brexit deal after the government said it would not delay the UK’s departure from the EU even to give parliament time to approve a new agreement.
Mr Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, ruled out a so-called “technical extension” during talks in Brussels this week, according to a leaked diplomatic memo seen by The Independent.
It raises the prospect that parliament could run out of time to ratify a Brexit deal even if the prime minister manages to secure a new agreement with Brussels.
Mr Johnson claimed on Friday that Remainers were wrecking Britain’s chances of leaving the EU with a deal by making Brussels officials believe that Brexit could be stopped.
But MPs warned that approving any deal would be “impossible” in just a few days after the PM’s move to suspend parliament, fuelling fears that Britain is heading for a no deal even as the government insists it is intensifying talks with the EU.
The Institute for Government think tank also said it would be “very tricky” for parliament to approve a deal in time, prompting Labour MPs to claim that Mr Johnson was not serious about negotiating a new agreement and was instead simply “telling people what they want to hear”.
Downing Street has suggested any deal could be ratified by 31 October, even if MPs had to work through the night.
Next week, ministers will launch a £100m “Get Ready” campaign urging businesses and members of the public to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. New concerns about the impact of no deal were raised after warnings that the UK could run out of flu vaccines.
MPs will launch a last-ditch bid to block a no-deal Brexit when parliament resumes next week after its summer break. Mr Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament from early September until just two weeks before 31 October gives opponents of no deal only days to act.
They were dealt a blow yesterday when a court ruled that the suspension, known as prorogation, could continue, despite a group of MPs and peers urging judges to declare it unconstitutional.
Mr Johnson has insisted he wants the UK to leave the EU with a deal, and on Friday claimed that MPs trying to block no deal were making it harder for him to secure an agreement.
He said: “I’m afraid that the more our friends and partners [in Europe] think, at the back of their mind, that Brexit could be stopped, that the UK could be kept in by parliament, the less likely they are to give us the deal that we need.”
However, Mr Frost is understood to have told EU officials that this must be agreed and ratified by the 31 October deadline, even though most commentators expect any breakthrough to come only at a European Council summit in 17 October – just two weeks before the UK is due to leave.
The diplomat is said to have assured Brussels that ratification of a deal would be possible in the second half of October, even though Mr Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament has cut the time available for MPs to debate Brexit.
But Maddy Thimont Jack, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, told The Independent: “It will be very tricky to get a deal through parliament after the European Council. The only real way to do it is to have the legal text ready so that you’re ready to transfer it to UK law straight away, and then pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in an expedited way.
“Johnson has said there will be votes on the Queen’s Speech on 21 and 22 October so from that time until the 31 October there are only six sitting days, which is barely any time.
“There will be a delay if the legal text is not ready, if they agree something last minute and it’s not ready to be transferred into law. That’s the challenge.”
Ms Thimont Jack said the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which is needed to turn the exit deal into law, was a “hugely complex bill that will have a significant impact on UK law” and should not be rushed through parliament.
She said: “If they do rush it through the Commons they avoid scrutiny, so it’s not a good way to legislate for something that momentous.”
Former cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin also warned yesterday that Britain would be on course for a disorderly departure even if Mr Johnson returns from the European Council meeting with a new agreement, because MPs would not have enough time to ratify it.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s an irony here, which is if he does get a deal, as a matter of fact, he is going to need an extension anyway because it’s impossible to take from the late October stage, a deal which is sort of written down but not solemnised, and implement it in just a few days. So in practice, the government would need to seek an extension.”
Labour MP Alex Sobel, a supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, said Mr Frost’s message to the EU showed Mr Johnson was not being genuine in claiming to want a deal.
He said: “The prime minister tells the British public and MPs that he’s doing everything to get a deal with the EU, but in his communications with the EU he’s saying he won’t delay even for a minute, even if a deal is done but extra time were needed for implementation. It’s the same old Boris Johnson, telling people what they want to hear.”
He added: “An extension to the Article 50 process may well be needed to avoid the disaster of no deal. Boris Johnson’s government do not have the right to impose this catastrophe on the country without public consent, and without the proper time to consider the implications.
“The claim we can get a deal and pass the massive amount of legislation needed to make it work in just a fortnight is an insult to democracy. Laws passed in a hurry are almost always bad laws because without proper scrutiny they contain untested assumptions and reflect ministerial prejudice rather than robust policy. So even if he got a deal under these circumstances, the laws we’d get would make the Poll Tax look like a policy masterpiece.”
MPs are set for a series of dramatic showdowns next week when Mr Johnson’s opponents spring into action to try to block a no-deal Brexit. The rebel leaders, including former Tory cabinet ministers Phil Hammond and Dominic Grieve, have remained tight-lipped about their plan for fear of alerting No 10 to their intentions, but are expected to try to rapidly push through a law that would rule out no deal.
While they work on masterminding a parliamentary plot to stop no deal, other MPs are focusing their attention on the courts.
Yesterday, the Court of Session in Scotland refused a request from a group of 70 MPs and peers to block the suspension of parliament until their appeal had been heard in full. Another case will be heard in London next week after being filed by a group including campaigner Gina Miller, former prime minister Sir John Major and Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. A third legal bid is under way in Northern Ireland.
As MPs opposed to no deal use the weekend to finalise their strategy, the government is putting the finishing touches to its own plans to encourage businesses and consumers to prepare for the UK crashing out of the EU.
The “Get Ready” advertising campaign has been drawn up by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who is responsible for no-deal planning, in close conjunction with No 10.
It will include printing mugs and T-shirts with the “Get Ready” slogan, paying for billboard adverts across the country and launching a new government web page.
Ministers have insisted repeatedly that the UK will be prepared to leave without a deal on 31 October, but further doubt was cast on the claims after doctors warned that such an outcome could result in a shortage of flu vaccines.
Around a million doses of the vaccines are likely to need to be imported into the UK after the Brexit deadline, just as Britain is faced with a particularly virulent strain of the illness.
Andrew Goddard, the president of the Royal Colleague of Physicians, told BBC Newsnight: “I can’t sit here and say ‘don’t worry, no deal will be fine, no one is going to come to any harm, no one is going to run out of medicines’.
“What we can see is we’re likely to not have enough flu vaccine, we are likely not to have the flu vaccine coverage that we’ve had in previous years, and that is likely to have an impact on the NHS.”
Drugs manufacturer Sanofi UK said shortages would be likely after Brexit.