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Barnier not optimistic as Johnson speaks of 'signs of progress' in Brexit talks

By Alexander Britton and Shaun Connolly, PA

Boris Johnson has spoken of "signs of progress" in Brexit discussions - but the EU's chief negotiator said he is "not optimistic" about avoiding a no-deal departure.

Michel Barnier has reaffirmed the European Union's commitment to the Irish backstop proposals in the Withdrawal Agreement that Mr Johnson has branded unacceptable.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Barnier insisted the measures, aimed at preventing a hard border across Ireland, represented the "maximum flexibility" that Brussels can offer.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson restated his case for a harder Brexit, telling The Sunday Times the country needed to "come out of the incarceration of the backstop".

He added: "Everybody understands what is wrong with the current withdrawal agreement: it keeps the UK locked into the EU. It means they can boss us around on trade policy or on how we legislate forever."

The interventions from both sides come ahead of another pivotal week in the Commons and an expected clash on the green benches when opponents of no deal look set to try to seize control of the parliamentary agenda to push through legislation delaying Brexit beyond October 31.

Mr Johnson - who spoke of "interesting signs of progress" in conversations with European leaders in Paris, Berlin and at the G7 - took aim at would-be rebels who may look to block a no-deal departure.

He told the paper: "I just say to everybody in the country, including everyone in parliament, the fundamental choice is this: are you going to side with Jeremy Corbyn and those who want to cancel the referendum?

"Are you going to side with those who want to scrub the democratic verdict of the people - and plunge this country into chaos."

"There's a good chance we'll get a deal and there's a good chance that we won't," Mr Johnson told Cabinet colleagues last week, according to The Sunday Times.

But Mr Barnier appeared less positive about the state of play and said the backstop needed to be in place.

He said: "I am not optimistic about avoiding a no-deal scenario, but we should all continue to work with determination.

"On the EU side, we had intense discussions with EU member states on the need to guarantee the integrity of the EU's single market, while keeping that border fully open.

"In this sense, the backstop is the maximum amount of flexibility that the EU can offer to a non-member state."

The Irish backstop is a contingency measure negotiated by Mr Johnson's predecessor Theresa May to get an exit deal over the line which could see Northern Ireland aligning with some EU single market rules if a trade deal is not agreed by the UK and EU after Brexit.

As Downing Street ratcheted up the rhetoric on Brexit, ministers branded a cross-party alliance of MPs seeking to prevent a no-deal departure as "deceitful and underhand".

Tory heavyweights including ex-chancellor Philip Hammond reacted angrily to claims Conservative MPs voting against a no-deal option when Parliament returns this week could be barred from standing in a snap general election.

Staunch Johnson ally and Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg strongly attacked those who were looking to introduce legislation to further delay Brexit.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Mr Rees-Mogg said: "They dare not use the confidence procedures because they know that Jeremy Corbyn is too unpopular, and therefore they seek deceitful ends by underhand means."

Reports that any bid to extend Brexit to stop a no-deal exit would be treated as a no confidence issue, with supporting Tory MPs stopped from standing for the party, drew a harsh response from Mr Hammond.

The ex-chancellor tweeted: "If true, this would be staggeringly hypocritical: 8 members of the current cabinet have defied the party whip this year.

"I want to honour our 2017 manifesto which promised a 'smooth and orderly' exit and a 'deep and special partnership' with the EU.

"Not an undemocratic No Deal."

A Government spokesman said: "All options for party management are under consideration, but first and foremost the PM hopes MPs will deliver on the referendum result and back him on Parliament."

Tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated on Saturday against Mr Johnson's plans to suspend Parliament for up to five weeks ahead of the return of MPs from their summer recess.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has again called for a general election, adding that a vote would be "an obvious and practical solution".

Writing in The Observer, he said: "This week could be the last chance to stop Johnson's Tory government taking us over a no-deal cliff edge that will threaten jobs and our NHS, mean a restoration of the border in Ireland - threatening peace - and cause shortages of food and medical supplies from day one.

"In the maelstrom of the coming days and weeks, we need to remember that sovereignty doesn't rest in Downing Street, or even in parliament, but with the people."

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