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Boris Johnson hit by backlash over 'unacceptable' pledge to withhold £39bn EU divorce bill

3 min read

Boris Johnson has faced a backlash over his plan to withhold the £39bn divorce bill agreed with the European Union if he becomes the next Prime Minister.

The frontrunner to succeed Theresa May ruled out making the payments, unless Brussels offered the UK improved terms in the withdrawal agreement.

The ex-foreign secretary said it was “extraordinary” that ministers had agreed the sum before the Brexit deal had been finalised and added that “money is a great solvent and a great lubricant” in getting a good deal.

In an interview with the Sunday Times he also vowed to scrap the Northern Ireland backstop and instead settle the issue when the bloc was ready to agree a future relationship.

The EU has repeatedly ruled out renegotiating the arrangement, which would create a temporary customs union between the UK and EU until an alternative means of keeping an open border in Ireland is reached.

But the bloc's Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt responded to Mr Johnson's claims, tweeting: "Boris Johnson threatens not to pay the Brexit bill. 

"This would not only hurt the UK’s credibility as an international partner, but it is absolutely unacceptable and contradicts what almost every lawyer in the UK thinks about it."

The claim also prompted fellow Tory leadership hopefuls to hit back, with Rory Stewart, who has vowed to avoid leaving with an agreement, branding his claims "undignified".

He tweeted: Over the last few days people have been asking me not to criticise Boris - arguing that his politics are harmless.

"This is his first interview. I’m afraid to say these threats on the 39 Billion are undignified. And the threats on the Irish Border are irresponsible.

"He is promising to get no-deal through parliament - a promise he cannot keep. And he has no clear view of what tariffs he seeks, or which British business he is seeking to protect.

"Where is the consistency, clarity, strategy or values in any of this?


Meanwhile Sam Gyimah, who is also among the 11 candidates for the top job, branded Mr Johnson's plan "self-defeating" 

"[The proposal] leads to a general election, and no deal, which is no solution," he said. "It’s a disruptive route to heading back to the negotiating table as people wake up to the reality of the situation."

"The £39bn is not a single payment that one can ‘retain’. It is a commitment to pay over up to 60 years for things like pensions.

"The exact amount won’t be known until the end - so £39bn is a best estimate based on the existing [withdrawal agreement] and guarantees the transition which business needs."

In his first major intervention since declaring he would run to be the next Tory leader, Mr Johnson said he was the only candidate who could see off the twin threat to the Conservatives of Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage.

In a reference to Greek mythology, he said: “I truly believe only I can steer the country between the Scylla and Charybdis of Corbyn and Farage and onto calmer water.

"This can only be achieved by delivering Brexit as promised on October 31 and delivering a One Nation Tory agenda.”

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