Senior Conservatives have criticised Boris Johnson’s handling of the Brexit trade negotiations and his threat to deploy Royal Navy gunboats to patrol UK fishing waters in the event of no deal.
With the Sunday deadline for reaching an agreement fast approaching, the Ministry of Defence confirmed four 80-metre armed vessels had been placed on standby to guard British waters from EU trawlers from 1 January, in the absence of an agreement on fishing rights.
Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the Commons defence committee, called the threat of deploying gunboats “irresponsible”, when attention should be focused on striking a deal, while the former EU commissioner Chris Patten accused the prime minister of behaving like an “English nationalist”.
Johnson said on Friday that fishing rights were one of the two major impediments to a deal, the other being how to maintain fair competition once the UK is able to set its own standards and regulations from the end of the transition period in three weeks’ time.
The readying of the navy vessels is likely to be interpreted as a warning to Brussels over the consequences of no deal being agreed on trade – an outcome both sides have said is now the likeliest outcome.
Ellwood, a former defence minister, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think these headlines are absolutely irresponsible. 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.”
Patten, also speaking to Today, accused Johnson of being on a “runaway train of English exceptionalism”. The former Conservative party chairman added: “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.
“And all the things that Conservatives used to believe in – like standing up for the union, like not attacking our institutions, like the judges, like believing in international cooperation – seem to have gone out of the window.”
The chief trade negotiators, the EU’s Michel Barnier and the UK’s David Frost, were due to start negotiating again shortly before midday on Saturday in Brussels, with talks also scheduled for Sunday.
The details about efforts to shore up protection of British waters emerged after such a move was suggested by some government backbenchers, including the Shrewsbury MP, Daniel Kawczynski. He tweeted on Friday that naval forces should be deployed in the new year “to prevent illegal French fishing in our waters”.
Sir Alan West, a former admiral and chief of naval staff, said it was right for the Royal Navy to be deployed if necessary. “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,” he told Today.
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