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Brexit: Johnson accused of a ‘failure of diplomacy and leadership’ as no-deal outcome looms large

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Boris Johnson is being accused of failure after his hopes of a Brexit meal deal in Brussels were dashed and trade talks went into extra time with a new deadline of Sunday.

His three-hour dinner with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen ended in deadlock with “very large gaps” between the two sides, according to Downing Street.

Ms von der Leyen, who described the talks as “lively and interesting” said the two sides “remain far apart”, a damning verdict that suggests a no-deal Brexit looks increasingly likely.

The Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove will now face MPs in a potentially heated Commons showdown, with opposition parties condemning the threat of no deal but Tory Brexiteers relishing it.

Labour is claiming that a year after Mr Johnson promised an “oven-ready deal” he has failed to deliver what he promised. The SNP has accused him of “a failure of diplomacy and leadership”.

While Mr Gove faces MPs, Ms von der Leyen will brief the EU’s 27 leaders at a Brussels summit and the Brexit negotiators Lord Frost and Michel Barnier will resume their talks once again.

Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen remove masks for the cameras in Brussels
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Ms von der Leyen said ‘very large gaps’ remain between the two sides

The deadlock at dinner came after the PM dashed to Brussels for talks which were billed as a make-or-break attempt to salvage a Brexit deal after months of discussions between Lord Frost and Mr Barnier ended in stalemate.

But the three-course dinner failed to achieve the breakthrough hoped for by both sides and even the menu chosen by Mr Johnson’s EU hosts pointed to a no-deal Brexit looming ahead.

In a move that was either intended to be provocative or reveal a sense of humour, given the clash over fishing rights, Mr Johnson was served scallops as a starter and turbot for the main course.

Even the choice of dessert – pavlova, a dish which it is claimed originated in Australia – hinted at a no-deal outcome, since Mr Johnson has often spoken of leaving the EU on Australian trade terms, meaning no deal.

The meeting got off to a bad start as the two leaders posed for the cameras ahead of the dinner. Ms von der Leyen told Mr Johnson to keep his distance as they briefly took their face coverings off.

She then told the Prime Minister to put his mask back on, to which Mr Johnson responded: “You run a tight ship here, Ursula, and quite right too.”

Three hours later, in a statement issued immediately after the dinner, a No. 10 source said: “The PM and VDL had a frank discussion about the significant obstacles which remain in the negotiations.

“Very large gaps remain between the two sides and it is still unclear whether these can be bridged.

“The PM and VDL agreed to further discussions over the next few days between their negotiating teams.

“The PM does not want to leave any route to a possible deal untested. The PM and VDL agreed that by Sunday a firm decision should be taken about the future of the talks.”

In a further statement an hour later, a Downing Street spokesman added: “They acknowledged that the situation remained very difficult and there were still major differences between the two sides.

“The prime minister is determined not to leave any route to a fair deal untested, but any agreement must respect the independence and sovereignty of the UK.”

In her statement, Ms von der Leyen said: “We had a lively and interesting discussion on the state of play across the list of outstanding issues.

“We gained a clear understanding of each other’s positions. They remain far apart.

“We agreed that the teams should immediately reconvene to try to resolve these essential issues. We will come to a decision by the end of the weekend.”

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‘I’ll take Commons up to Xmas Eve if necessary’

Reacting to the deadlock, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: “One year after Boris Johnson promised us an oven-ready deal he has completely failed.

“The failure to deliver the deal he promised is his and his alone.”

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves, whose urgent question is being answered by Mr Gove in the Commons, said: “The Prime Minister promised an oven-ready deal.

“He needs to get it done so we can focus on what matters to the British people: securing our economy, protecting our NHS and rebuilding our country.”

And the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford tweeted: “A no deal would be a massive failure of diplomacy and leadership which @BorisJohnson has to take ownership of.

“On top of the health & economic impact of Covid this is self-induced self harm. Disruption to trade, tariffs, higher prices and lost jobs is never a price worth paying.”

Analysis: EU’s patience with the UK has all but evaporated

By Adam Parsons, Europe correspondent

And so now we have a deadline that feels pretty firm. Putting the finishing line at the end of this weekend will focus some attention when EU leaders gather in Brussels for their latest meeting, and may push negotiators to make one last throw of the dice.

But it might go nowhere. For months now, the negotiating teams have been talking with ever more intensity – and they have achieved very little. Without significant compromises, on both sides, it’s hard to see how a breakthrough will emerge.

The EU has already started to gear up for no deal, and those preparations are now going to gather momentum.

Some believe that it will be better to negotiate once the effects of no deal have been seen; others are genuinely upset – fond of the UK and worried that rancour will follow.

But everyone is weary of talks that have meandered endlessly down a variety of cul-de-sacs. The EU is presently split by arguments over its budget, COVID-19, the rule of law and foreign policy. Over the past 10 months or so, Brexit has taken up a lot of time without ever being top of the agenda.

Every European country would rather that the UK left with a deal – but the EU thinks the compromises need to come mostly from Westminster – and the patience to wait for them has all but evaporated.

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