Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has warned that a hard Brexit could threaten the place of Northern Ireland and Scotland in the UK as Boris Johnson told EU leaders that Britain will leave the bloc without a deal unless they drop the so-called Irish backstop.
In a highly unusual intervention on internal British politics, Mr Varadkar said that if there were a no-deal Brexit on October 31, “more and more people in Northern Ireland will come to question the union”.
He added: “One of the things that ironically could really undermine the union of the UK is a hard Brexit, both for Northern Ireland and for Scotland, and that is a problem they are going to have to face.”
The Taoiseach’s remarks at a conference in Donegal, in which he pointed out that Northern Ireland, like Scotland, had voted to stay in the EU, underlined the deep divide between EU leaders and the unrelenting hardline stance on Brexit that Mr Johnson has adopted since becoming prime minister on Wednesday.
He has countered suggestions that his stance threatens the union by emphasising his commitment to all the nations of the UK and dubbing himself “minister for the union”.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said on Friday that there would be no new Brexit talks until the EU dropped its refusal to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement struck with Theresa May that includes a backstop, which is intended to prevent a hard border in Ireland.
“The withdrawal agreement has been rejected three times by the House of Commons. It’s not going to pass,” the spokesman said. “That means reopening the withdrawal agreement and securing the abolition of the backstop.”
As his new government started to ramp up preparations for a no-deal exit on October 31, Mr Johnson conveyed the same message in phone calls with his counterparts in Germany and France, both of whom, like Mr Varadkar, have insisted that the withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened.
In his conversation with German chancellor Angela Merkel, he said that abolishing the backstop was the only way to “make progress on a deal”, Mr Johnson’s officials said.
Talking to Emmanuel Macron, French president, he insisted that without any compromise from the EU “we will be leaving” without a deal at the scheduled date of the end of October.
Mr Johnson’s stance has won him ringing endorsement from Brexit backers in the Conservative party and has also drawn warm words from Donald Trump. In a congratulatory phone call on Friday evening, the US president and Mr Johnson agreed that Brexit offered an “unparalleled opportunity” to strengthen the partnership between the UK and United States, according to Downing Street.
However, the prime minister’s stance has drawn warnings that he has set up a confrontation with his EU partners.
Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, said: “I think [Mr Johnson] seems to have made a deliberate decision to set Britain on a collision course with the EU and with Ireland in relation to the Brexit negotiations. Only he can answer the question as to why he is doing that.”
Meanwhile, Downing Street has ordered departments to make requests for extra funding to deal with no-deal preparations. The transport department issued a tender on Friday for up to £300m of contracts for extra freight capacity to ensure the flow of critical goods, such as medicines, into the UK.
With only three months to go, some industry groups are increasingly concerned about a no-deal Brexit. The Society for Motor Manufacturers warned in a letter to Mr Johnson on Friday that no deal would present an “existential threat to our industry” and was simply not an option.
Mr Johnson’s Brexit face-off with Brussels is set to dominate the coming weeks, but the new prime minister is also determined to show that he has a broader national agenda for change.
In a speech in Manchester on Saturday, he will confirm plans for a new Trans-Pennine rail route between Manchester and Leeds. “I want to be the PM who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did with Crossrail in London,” he will say. “Today, I am going to deliver on my commitment to that vision with a pledge to fund the Leeds to Manchester route.”