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9 December 2020

What we learned at PMQs ahead of Boris Johnson’s Brussels dinner

Boris Johnson talked up the prospect of no deal at Prime Minister's Questions, while Keir Starmer gave the clearest hint yet on Labour's Brexit position.

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson is rolling the pitch for his Brussels dinner

Prime Minister’s Questions was Boris Johnson’s last engagement in London today before flying to Brussels for his much-anticipated dinner with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, for a last-ditch attempt to resolve the deadlock in negotiations over the future trading relationship between the UK and EU. Johnson laid out in simple, stark terms why he considers the current offer from the EU unacceptable: the EU could change laws that the UK has no say in and punish the UK if it fails to implement them, while the UK would be left “the only country in the world” without sovereign control over its own waters.

The Prime Minister’s fighting talk and insistence that the UK will “prosper mightily” whether it secures a trade deal or not leaves questions over his ultimate game-plan: whether he is preparing the way to leave the talks, or heightening the rhetoric such that whatever breakthrough he makes is seen as a greater diplomatic triumph. Regardless, his later replies to Ian Blackford, insisting that the UK will prosper “whatever the terms we reach tonight”, did hint at how pivotal he considers tonight’s dinner to be. 

[see also: Are Boris Johnson’s theatrics cover for a Brexit deal or no deal?]

Keir Starmer gave the strongest indication yet that Labour will vote for a Brexit deal

As Boris Johnson, until recently an Islington resident himself, jibed at Keir Starmer, who is currently self-isolating, for appearing virtually at PMQs from “his spiritual home” in Islington (Starmer actually lives in Camden), the Labour leader tried to navigate what is an uncomfortable topic for Labour by focusing on Johnson’s promise to “get Brexit done”. Starmer highlighted the damage to businesses of a trade deal being left so late, and Johnson’s previous comment that no deal would constitute a “failure of statecraft”. The Prime Minister continued to needle Starmer over his unwillingness to raise Brexit in PMQs previously, and said he wouldn’t be taking lectures from the Labour leader “until he is able to come up with a position of his own”. It pushed Starmer to give the clearest indication yet of what has already been briefed. “My party will vote in the national interest” and “not on party political lines”, Starmer said, which has been widely interpreted as meaning that Labour intends to vote any trade deal the government secures if and when it comes to the Commons.

[see also: Is Keir Starmer a strategic mastermind or an opportunist driven by events?]

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