Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are in “close contact” as the pair race to seal a deal before the Christmas break. Both the UK and EU are making a “final push” for a post-Brexit trade deal, according to Brussels’ chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. Despite this, he told the bloc’s 27 member states that there was little time left to reach an agreement before the December 31 deadline.
Sticking points still remain on fishing rights and a so-called “level-playing field”.
Mr Johnson and his chief negotiator, David Frost, are already thought to have conceded ground on EU fishing access to UK waters.
EU sources suggest the British demand for a 60 percent reduction in the catch by value in UK waters has been reduced to 35 percent.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, although previously an ardent Remainer, having been one of the architects of a People’s Vote, has largely supported Mr Johnson in trying to get a deal.
Earlier this month, reports suggest that he attempted to whip his MPs to support any deal presented to the House of Commons by Mr Johnson.
And while this is something that has frustrated many within the Labour Party, Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham, told Express.co.uk that Sir Keir is doing this to avoid Mr Johnson accusing him of being a “secret Remainer”.
Prof Fielding explained: “Johnson doesn’t really like what Starmer says – he’s going to do whatever the Government wants to do, that’s neither here nor there.
“What Starmer doesn’t want to do is be positioned, because if he does, he knows what Johnson will say, he’ll say ‘ah Starmer, you don’t really want to leave the EU do you?’
“This is all about winning back the hearts and the minds of Red Wall voters, so he doesn’t want to be painted as somebody who is secretly a Remainer that wants to subvert the Brexit vote, and wants to go against the decision of the British public that was pretty clear in the 2019 election.
“So this is one reason for his clarity and support for the Government, he doesn’t want those Red Wall and Leave voters that abandoned Labour in 2019 to be persuaded that Starmer in any kind of way as a reluctant Leaver – as someone who is a secret Remainer.”
Sir Keir, in a speech focused on UK devolution on Monday, said he did not support any extension to the Brexit negotiations.
This was despite leading Labour figures like London Mayor Sadiq Khan urging the Prime Minister to extend talks beyond December 31.
Mr Johnson himself yesterday ruled out calls to extend the negotiations past the end of the year.
And while Sir Keir is trying not to give Mr Johnson an opportunity to attack him as a “secret Remainer”, he himself is poised to attack the Prime Minister should the fishing access concessions mark the beginning of the Government lapsing on its 2019 election promises.
In May, many of those pro-Brexit fishing groups that supported Mr Johnson in last year’s election demanded that no leeway be given to the EU over access to UK waters.
At the time, Fishing for Leave said: “Britain holds the whip hand, EU consumers need/are dependent on fish caught in British waters.
“We must not back down from being achingly close to righting the wrong inflicted upon fishing by [former Prime Minister] Ted Heath and regaining our greatest natural resource to exorcise an injustice and rejuvenate British coastal communities with a £6 and £8billion industry.”
Prof Fielding said Sir Keir will advance on any inkling of Mr Johnson betraying the UK’s port towns and cities.
He said: “He’s completely free to attack the Government and of course, he will.
“It might appear to be inconsistent, but it would be consistent in the sense that Starmer could say to those affected, ‘You voted for Boris Johnson in 2019, he said he was going to deliver a great deal, an oven ready deal, it was going to be brilliant and great, and look what he’s done to you – he’s screwed you.’
“He could quite legitimately say that, because a deal that Johnson promised, that magical deal, the closer we get to it, if it does include concessions on fishing rights, that’s not what those people voted for.
“Starmer’s entirely justified in saying Johnson has betrayed you.”
He did note, however, the “irony” for someone who supported a second referendum to then attack Johnson in a slightly different position.
All of this could prove fatal for Mr Johnson’s leadership, according to Dr Jonathan Mellon, a senior politics researcher and co-director of the British Election Study (BES) at the University of Manchester.
He told Express.co.uk that the Tories have a lot “to worry about” going into the New Year, it being likely the Government will have to implement austerity measures to curb the cost of the coronavirus pandemic.
Talking about voter intentions, especially those Red Wall voters – working class, North of England communities who fell to the Conservatives in 2019 – will take notice of the harsh conditions placed on them by Mr Johnson.
Dr Mellon said: “It’s inevitably going to make it harder for him to hold on to voters.”
And while Sir Keir appears to be heading in a favourable direction, a shadow cabinet minister told The Guardian that there is a “feeling” he might be swayed on abstaining from a vote on a deal.
Paul Embery, a leading trade unionist and Labour member, said this would ruin Sir Keir and the Labour Party’s chances of winning back power, and regaining the trust of Red Wall voters in a future general election.
He told Express.co.uk: “There are people in the party who are fanatically pro-EU, and it will go against everything that they believe in to accept that we’re out and we’re staying out, but they’ve got to – if they’re serious about reengaging those lost Red Wall voters they’ve got to.
“And there’s no room for self-indulgence on this: we’re out of the EU, we’ve got to stay out of the EU, and any policy trying to get us back in would be a suicide mission.”
Meanwhile, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told the BBC an agreement was possible before the end of 2020 but further movement was required from the EU.
He said a deal was close “in totality” but the two sides were still apart on future fishing arrangements and what happens if the UK diverges from EU employment and environmental standards in the future.
Talking to Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “There is still some way further to go on that on the EU’s part.
“If that happens, there is a deal to be done.”