Boris Johnson has said the £39bn Brexit divorce bill would not “strictly speaking” be owed to Brussels in full in the event of no deal, insisting: “It’s not a threat. It’s a reality.”
Speaking to broadcasters as he prepared to meet the European council president, Donald Tusk, at the G7 summit in Biarritz, Johnson said: “If we come out without an agreement it is certainly true that the £39bn is no longer, strictly speaking, owed.”
He told ITV: “There will be very substantial sums available to our country to spend on our priorities. It’s not a threat. It’s a simple fact of reality.”
His intervention came after Tusk warned Johnson against going down in history as “Mr No Deal”.
During the Conservative leadership campaign, Johnson suggested the entire £39bn would be retained in the hope of using it as leverage to win a better future trading relationship from the EU27, saying: “Money is a great solvent and a great lubricant.”
But Downing Street appears to have conceded that legal obligations for past liabilities may mean up to a quarter of it may still have to be paid.
The remarks on the divorce bill are likely to infuriate Britain’s EU27 counterparts, who are still awaiting detailed proposals from London about how to maintain a soft border in Ireland after Brexit.
However, Johnson claimed the chances of renegotiating Britain’s exit had improved after his trips to Berlin and Paris. “In the last few days there has been a change of mood in the EU,” he said.
Asked whether negotiations should resume in Brussels – something he hopes Tusk will approve – Johnson said: “It is sensible now to get going and we will get going.”
In a separate interview with the BBC, he said it was “touch and go” whether a deal could be reached in time, however – and he sought to lay the blame at the door of the EU27 if the outcome was ultimately a no-deal Brexit.
“It all depends on our EU friends and partners. I think in the last few days there has been a dawning realisation in Brussels and other European capitals what the shape of the problem is for the UK,” he said.
During his media round, Johnson also compared the challenge of Brexit to a rock he had encountered on his morning swim in the sea at the French Atlantic resort.
“I swam round that rock this morning. From here you cannot tell there is a gigantic hole in that rock. There is a way through,” he said.
“My point to the EU is that there is a way through, but you can’t find the way through if you just sit on the beach.”
The prime minister also reiterated that the withdrawal agreement, containing what he has repeatedly referred to as the “undemocratic” backstop, must be scrapped, because it could not pass through parliament.
Johnson voted for the deal himself at the third time of asking earlier this year, as did several other prominent Brexiters, including the former Brexit secretary David Davis.
The prime minister is widely believed at Westminster to be drawing up plans for an early general election, in order to frustrate efforts to tie his hands on Brexit.