Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would submit “compromise” plans for a Brexit agreement to Brussels on Wednesday but again warned that Britain was prepared to leave the European Union later this month without a deal, despite fears it could herald an economic slump.
In his closing speech to his Conservative party’s annual conference, Johnson said the plans would address the contentious issue of how to keep open Britain’s border with Ireland.
“This is a compromise by the UK,” he told delegates in the northwestern city of Manchester, adding that he hoped EU leaders “understand that and compromise in their turn”.
But he emphasised that if they did not, Britain would still leave the EU on October 31.
“A no-deal exit is not an outcome we seek at all. But let me tell you my friends it is an outcome for which we are ready”, he said, to big cheers from delegates.
Johnson is expected to speak to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker later on Wednesday to discuss the revised offer.
The Confederation of British Industry said a no-deal would be “a historic failure of statecraft” which would dog growth and trade “for years to come”.
Johnson, a leading “leave” campaigner in the 2016 EU referendum, took office in July vowing to deliver Brexit at the end of this month in all circumstances.
But like his predecessor Theresa May, he has struggled against a hostile parliament and the complexities of untangling four decades of EU integration.
His promise to leave without a deal was derailed when MPs last month passed a law demanding he seek to delay Brexit if he has not reached an agreement by an EU summit on October 17.
Johnson is now racing to renegotiate the exit terms May agreed with Brussels, which were rejected by the British parliament three times.
His proposals focus on finding an alternative to her controversial “backstop” plan, which aims to keep an open border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.
The current arrangement would keep Britain in an effective customs union with the EU, which critics argued would force London to abide by the bloc’s rules indefinitely.
Johnson said his plan would “under no circumstances have checks at or near the border in Northern Ireland”.
It would seek to protect cross-border agricultural trade by extending existing regulatory arrangements — indicating Northern Ireland will continue following some EU rules.
But the province will remain part of the same customs territory as mainland Britain, he said.
“We will allow the UK — whole and entire — to withdraw from the EU, with control of our own trade policy from the start,” he said.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported the plan would potentially create two new borders — regulatory checks between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland along the Irish Sea, and customs checks on the island of Ireland.
It added that Johnson wanted to keep this arrangement until 2025, when the devolved assembly in Belfast would be able to decide how to proceed.
But the EU has warned many times it will not accept any attempt to put a time limit on the border plan.
Juncker’s spokeswoman said Brussels has yet to see the legal text of the plan. But she warned that any deal must meet “all the objectives” of the existing backstop arrangement.
The British government’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost, is in Brussels and will hold “technical talks” with his EU counterparts later in the day.
Johnson on Tuesday denied a media report that he was looking at installing customs posts along the Irish border, amid outrage from Dublin.
The removal of border posts was seen as key to bringing peace to Northern Ireland after three decades of violence over British rule that left thousands dead.
Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said he had not seen the plans in detail yet, but said the initial reports suggested “it’s not good news”.
“We don’t believe that customs checks on the island of Ireland will be the basis of an agreement between the EU and the UK,” he told Ireland’s RTE broadcaster.
May twice delayed Brexit as she tried and failed to push her deal through the House of Commons.
Johnson has also faced significant opposition among MPs and lost his wafer-thin Commons majority during a rebellion over his EU strategy earlier this month.
Yet even after being slapped down last week by Britain’s Supreme Court for unlawfully trying to suspend parliament, Johnson still insists he will never ask for a delay.