Boris Johnson hopes to use Brexit as an electoral weapon against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but the prime minister’s own position is coming under pressure amid claims that he could take Britain out of the EU without a trade deal in December 2020.
Mr Johnson insists that he can complete the first stage of Brexit by the end of January and would then negotiate a free trade deal with the EU by the end of a standstill transition period that ends next December.
Downing Street said on Tuesday that Mr Johnson would not allow MPs to vote on whether to extend the transition period — during which Britain would stay part of the single market and customs union — if no trade deal was in place.
Given that no significant trade deal has been concluded and ratified in such a short space of time, Mr Johnson refusal to contemplate a longer transition — the EU withdrawal treaty provides for it to run until December 2022 — has raised the spectre of another no-deal cliff edge.
David Gauke, former justice secretary, claimed that such a policy was “reckless” and that if Britain left the EU on World Trade Organisation terms in 2021 it would be “damaging for many sectors” of the economy.
Mr Gauke pointed out that Robert Buckland, the current justice secretary, had said as recently as October 22 that MPs had a “legitimate role to play” in deciding by July next year whether to apply for a longer transition period.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said “we aren’t extending the transition period” but refused to confirm that the prime minister was therefore willing to preside over a disruptive exit from the transition period without a trade deal.
“There’s no reason whatsoever we won’t have reached a deal by that date,” he said. Mr Johnson wants to remove the threat of a “no deal” Brexit from the Tory manifesto in an attempt to allay the concerns of pro-Remain Tory voters considering voting for the Liberal Democrats.