Boris Johnson's words will have consequences as time runs out for EU trade deal

Friday 16th October 2020 14:45 BST

It is true that the prime minister did not entirely close the door to further talks with the EU.

It is also true that the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier was already heading to London on Monday for fresh discussions, and that the EU does not believe this to have changed.

There are many in Whitehall even this week insisting the PM wants and needs a deal with Brussels, and the remarks he has uttered today will not change that.

But words have consequences in politics, and today's statement was starker than many expected.

By saying the EU has "abandoned an idea of a free trade deal", Mr Johnson has trashed much of the negotiations done to date, which experts said had made more progress than they expected.

By saying the UK won't continue talks unless the EU make a "fundamental" change of approach, the PM is creating a hurdle which others will hold him to.

That appears difficult given the European Union's 27 leaders' council conclusions yesterday.

But most of all, the problem is that time is tight, and there are more important things for people to worry about.

The EU want to conclude a trade deal within 14 days - the end of the month - and while there may be an extra week or two flexibility into November, that's about it.

All at a time when a second coronavirus spike is heading across Europe and proving more difficult to manage than the first.

Getting a deal requires a huge focus from Number 10 and significant choreography with the EU.

There is a huge amount of patching up to do because of the Internal Market bill, let alone today's statement.

Yet as intensive care beds fill up, coronavirus mortality increases and political problems pile up, it is all too easy to allow Brexit to slip just a little bit too far down the agenda.

Across Whitehall many are convinced Mr Johnson cannot afford not to have a deal, politically or because of the practical implications. But will he have the singular focus to get it, at this troubled and busy time?

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