Boris branded 'English nationalist' by senior Tories in row over Brexit talks

Boris Johnson has been accused of making ‘irresponsible’ threats and acting ‘like an English nationalist’ in his handling of Brexit negotiations.

Senior Conservatives have reacted angrily to the Prime Minister’s plan to deploy Royal Navy gunboats to patrol UK fishing waters in the event of no-deal.

The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that four 80-metre armed vessels have been placed on standby to guard British waters from EU trawlers if no agreement on fishing rights is struck by December 31, when the transition period ends.

Reports also suggested that military helicopter surveillance will be made available and that ministers are considering beefing-up Navy powers to authorise them to board and arrest fishermen found to be contravening post-Brexit rules.

Former Tory chairman Lord Patten accused the Prime Minister of behaving like an ‘English nationalist’ rather than a Conservative in a scathing attack.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘What we’re seeing is Boris Johnson on this runaway train of English exceptionalism and heaven knows where it is going to take us in the end.

‘I want the best for my country, I fear for what’s happening at the moment and I fear for our reputation around the world, I fear for what will happen economically.

‘I hope that I’m wrong to feel so depressed about the outlook but I don’t think that Mr Johnson is a Conservative, I think he is an English nationalist.’

The former cabinet minster accused the PM of turning his back on the Union and international cooperation.

He said: ‘While I hope for the best, I do fear for the worst because it is very, very difficult to see what the plan is, how we’re going to do so brilliantly when we’re out of this ‘cage’ of Europe – which we of course helped to build because the main constructor of the single market was Margaret Thatcher.’

Former defence minister and Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood, also voiced his concern about the Royal Navy proposals and urged for the gaps in the negotiations to be bridged before the deadline.

‘I think these headlines are absolutely irresponsible,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

‘We need to be focusing on what is already in the bag – 98% of the deal is there, there are three or four outstanding issues.

‘Important though they are, let’s park those for the future. Let’s get this deal because economically, but most importantly, international reputationally this would be so damaging to Britain – it would be a retrograde step, a failure of statecraft.’

The decision to ready the Navy for increased territorial patrols – likely to be read as a warning in Brussels over fishing rights – comes after Mr Johnson met senior cabinet officials on Friday afternoon to ‘take stock’ of Government plans for a no-deal exit.

The PM and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have both warned that striking a last-minute trade agreement is looking increasingly unlikely, with the pair set to take a firm decision on the future of the talks on Sunday.

Mr Johnson warned on Friday that it looked ‘very, very likely’ that the country was on the prospect of leaving the single market without new trading arrangements in place for January 1.

The trade talks continue to be deadlocked over the thorny issues of fishing rights and the so-called level playing field that would tie the UK to future EU standards.

In a speech at a climate change summit on Saturday, the Prime Minister appeared to take a dig at French president Emmanuel Macron over the fishing row.

Mr Macron has reportedly threatened to veto a UK-EU deal after expressing dissatisfaction at the new quota terms being thrashed out for French fishermen.

In his closing remarks, the Prime Minister thanked summit co-host Mr Macron, adding that he knew the En Marche! leader ‘shares my keen interest in protecting the ecosystems of our seas’.

While some Conservatives have attacked the plan to deploy naval boats, others have suggested the move is necessary.

Admiral Lord West, a former chief of naval staff, warned that a no-deal Brexit is likely to end in a ‘punch up’ in the Channel over fishing rights.

‘It is absolutely appropriate that the Royal Navy should protect our waters if the position is that we are a sovereign state and our Government has said we don’t want other nations there,’ Lord West told Today.

‘There are complications in that you can push vessels aside, you can cut their fishing tackle but boarding these foreign ships, they’ll need to pass probably a little thing through Parliament to give authority to board and get on them.

‘There is no doubt if you are a fisherman who has fished for years there – they are, as our fishermen are, quite stormy people – and you get a bit of a punch-up and you might need some Marines and things.’

 Chief trade negotiators Michel Barnier and Lord Frost started negotiating again shortly before midday on Saturday in Brussels, with talks expected to last late into the night.

ITV’s political correspondent Daniel Hewitt reported that talks were still stuck on Saturday night.

Preparations are also being made at ports, with part of the M20 motorway to be shut for four consecutive nights across the weekend as Kent tests plans to tackle any travel disruption as a result of customs changes.

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