Senior British ministers struck a combative note on Brexit negotiations a day after Theresa May’s speech on the UK’s objectives, with Boris Johnson likening François Hollande to a world war two prison guard.
The foreign secretary was responding to comments by an adviser to the French president that Britain could not have a better deal outside the EU than it currently enjoys. “If Mr Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anyone who wants to escape, rather like a character in a world war two movie, I don’t think that will be in his interest or the interest of our European partners,” Mr Johnson said on a trip to India.
David Davis, the Brexit secretary, also invoked Britain in wartime when he dismissed suggestions that Britain’s civil service, with its small number of experienced trade negotiators, would be overstretched by Brexit. “If our country can deal with world war two, it can deal with this,” he told the BBC.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief negotiator, called Mr Johnson’s comments “abhorrent and deeply unhelpful” and urged Mrs May to condemn them. But a Downing Street spokesman played down his remarks, saying: “At no point did he use the word ‘Nazi’.”
Mr Johnson’s tone illustrated the ebullience among pro-Brexit politicians after Mrs May set out some of the UK’s negotiating objectives and warned Britain was prepared to walk out of the bloc if necessary. The prime minister had also warned EU leaders not to strive for a “punitive” deal as this would be “an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe”.
Mrs May herself was in similarly positive mood on Wednesday as she took on Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, at prime minister’s questions. “I’ve got a plan, and he hasn’t got a clue,” she said.
Downing Street is likely to have been pleased by the response of Donald Tusk, EU Council president, who praised Mrs May’s “warm, balanced words on European integration”. “Much closer to [the] narrative of Churchill than President-elect Trump,” he said on Twitter.
In Strasbourg Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s president, said EU negotiators were “not in a hostile mood” toward Britain but that Brexit talks would be “very, very, very” difficult.
Separately, the UK Supreme Court said it would rule on January 24 on whether parliament and the devolved administrations should be given a vote on the decision to trigger Article 50, the EU’s exit clause.
Ministers are preparing a bill in case they lose the case and need to rush legislation through. They are expected to keep any bill as short as possible in an attempt to scupper opposition from MPs and peers opposed to a “hard Brexit”.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, called on the prime minister to make “privileged access to the single market . . . the top priority for negotiations . . . It can’t be brushed aside, as it was yesterday.”
Addressing the issue of the Brexit process, Mr Davis admitted that the UK and the EU disagreed over whether exit talks and trade negotiations could run in parallel, saying: “That almost certainly is going to be one of our earliest discussions.”
Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, has insisted that the terms of Britain’s divorce — such as how much it owes the EU — have to be finalised before any discussions on trade can begin.
Mrs May has promised that Britain will leave the EU by March 2019, with an implementation phase to follow. Mr Davis said that the implementation period could be “a year or two”. Asked whether it could be five years, he replied: “I doubt it.”
He said other trade deals around the world were slowed down by the need to harmonise product standards, which would not be such an issue for the UK and the EU. “We are already in that position. The day we leave . . . our standards will be identical to [those of the] Europeans, so that whole area is swept aside,” he said.
Mrs May’s speech, delivered to an audience including EU ambassadors, was notable for its conciliatory tone. Yet much media reaction in the UK focused on her promise to leave the EU without a free trade arrangement, rather than accept “a bad deal for Britain”.
Mr Davis compared the UK’s negotiating tactics to someone buying a house. “If you go to buy a house, and you tell the person you’re buying from, ‘this is the only house I am going to buy’, does the price go up or down?” he said. “Of course we have all options open to us. That is only responsible in a negotiation.”
At a same time the Brexit minister said Britain would begin informal trade talks with third countries. “You can’t actually sign the deals. But it doesn’t mean we can’t talk to people,” he said.
While Donald Trump, the incoming US president, has predicted other countries will follow Britain out of the EU, Mr Davis played down the prospect.
“For most of the countries in Europe, Europe’s not just about economics, it’s about democracy, it’s about the rule of law,” he said. “These are countries that have come from difficult histories into what, for them, is the exemplar of modern politics, you know, freedom, rule of law, democracy. They’re not going to be tempted by this.”