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Boris Johnson hints UK could remain in EU single market and customs union until 2021

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 2019-07-31 Stephanie Cockroft
Boris Johnson wearing a suit and tie © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

Boris Johnson has hinted that the UK could stay in a customs union with Europe for another two years.

During his visit to Wales, the prime minister indicated that he could include a transition period designed to soften the impact of leaving the EU on UK businesses.

Mr Johnson said: "Some of the (No Deal) changes that are going to be necessary in the run-up to October 31 will be crucial anyway if we are going to come out of the customs union and single market, as we must, in the course of the next couple of years."

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It came after a fiery phone call between the PM and Irish leader Leo Varadkar over plans to "abolish the backstop."

Mr Johnson said the Irish border agreement needed to be scrapped if a Brexit deal was to be struck by October 31.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at Stormont House in Northern Ireland. © Getty Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at Stormont House in Northern Ireland.

Mr Varadkar countered saying that the EU would not change its stance.

Mr Johnson is to hold talks with Northern Ireland's political leaders later today in a bid to inject fresh impetus to faltering efforts to restore powersharing.

The prime minister will hold bilateral meetings with the five main parties at Stormont on Wednesday morning.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government for two-and-a-half years and ​Stormont's two main parties - the DUP and Sinn Fein - remain at loggerheads over a series of long-standing disputes.

Mr Johnson's visit to Stormont comes amid deadlock in the latest talks process, aimed at securing a resolution having ended in failure.

DUP Leader Arlene Foster. © PA DUP Leader Arlene Foster.

Families of people killed by the security forces during the Troubles are planning to protest on the Stormont estate while the prime minister is holding his meetings.

Ahead of the visit, Mr Johnson said the region had been without proper governance "for much, much too long".

He said he would do everything in his power to help the parties reach agreement.

"The people of Northern Ireland have now been without an executive and assembly for two years and six months - put simply this is much, much too long," he said.

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"Northern Ireland's citizens need and deserve the executive to get up and running again as soon as possible, so that locally accountable politicians can take decisions on the issues that really matter to local people.

"I'm pleased to meet each of Northern Ireland's party leaders today to stress that I am going to do everything in my power to make the ongoing talks to restore devolution a success."

Mr Johnson arrived in Northern Ireland on Tuesday evening when he dined with senior members of the DUP to discuss the renewal of his Government's confidence and supply deal with the unionist party at Westminster.

DUP leader Arlene Foster, deputy leader Nigel Dodds and party whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson attended Tuesday's dinner with the Prime Minister.

The DUP's 10 MPs have propped up the minority Government since the 2017 general election - an arrangement that delivered a £1 billion boost in public spending in Northern Ireland.

New Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith did not attend.

It is understood his absence was designed to underline that the engagement was about the confidence and supply deal, not the powersharing dispute.

The focus will shift to the Stormont logjam on Wednesday morning.

The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led powersharing coalition imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Fein deputy first minister amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.

The fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, same-sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

On Tuesday it emerged that Mr Johnson had clashed with his Irish counterpart over the Brexit backstop in their first phone call since the Tory MP became Prime Minister.

Mr Johnson told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that he will approach Brexit negotiations in "a spirit of friendship" but reiterated that any fresh deal must see the backstop abolished, Downing Street said.

Mr Varadkar told him the emergency measure to prevent a hard border on the island was "necessary as a consequence" of UK decisions, the Irish Government said.

Mr Johnson's visit is his first to Northern Ireland as Prime Minister.

It comes following visits to Scotland, Wales and cities across England earlier this week.

He previously announced that the Mid South West Growth Deal in Northern Ireland will receive a share of £300 million new funding, to help boost business and enhance opportunities for people in the region.

Additional reporting by PA

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