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Boris Johnson to face MPs for grilling on Brexit proposals

Victoria Jones/PA Wire

By Sam Blewett and Catherine Wylie, PA Political Correspondents

Boris Johnson is expected to defend his Brexit proposals to MPs as he appeals to EU leaders to back his new blueprint.

The Prime Minister will give a statement to the House of Commons on Thursday, a Downing Street source indicated, and then face a grilling from critics.

The statement will come after he updates his Cabinet at Number 10 on his proposals and before calls to EU leaders.

Mr Johnson has said he wants to get a deal in place for the EU summit on October 17 so the UK can leave with an agreement at the end of the month.

But so far European leaders have reacted coolly to the plan to resolve the issue of the backstop, which the PM set out in a letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday.

Mr Johnson has already spoken to Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr Juncker, while more talks are expected in the coming days.

The PM has sold his plan to keep Northern Ireland tied to the EU single market rules for trade in goods while leaving the customs union with the rest of the UK as a "fair and reasonable compromise".

However, Mr Juncker and Mr Varadkar both expressed concern that the return of customs controls threatened the Good Friday Agreement guarantee to maintain an open border with the Republic.

Mr Varadkar said the proposals "do not fully meet the agreed objectives" of the backstop, while the commission president said there were some "problematic points".

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay sought to defend the proposals in a round of interviews on Thursday morning.

"We're being very clear that we stand by our commitments to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"There will be no infrastructure on the border."

As to the necessity of checks, he argued that "most smuggling operations aren't actually addressed at a border", with a heavy reliance instead on intelligence-sharing.

Even if the Prime Minister gets the support of EU leaders for a deal, he must get it through a Parliament that has so far been hostile to Brexit proposals.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mr Johnson's offer was worse than Theresa May's thrice-rejected deal and warned that Mr Johnson appeared intent on a no-deal break on October 31.

The PM appeared to be building support from the DUP, Eurosceptics within his own party and some opposition MPs wishing to avert a no-deal.

Steve Baker, the chairman of the European Research Group of hardline Tory Brexiteers, signalled that he could back a deal, while the DUP was making positive sounds, as was Labour's Stephen Kinnock, who is key in cross-party efforts to leave with a deal.

But their stances could well alter if Brussels insists on changes, as seems likely.

Nationalists in Northern Ireland have expressed anger over a proposal requiring the suspended Stormont Assembly to approve the new arrangements, with a vote every four years.

Sinn Fein argued that it would effectively hand a veto to Mr Johnson's allies, the DUP, who have a majority in the assembly.

Under the plan, the arrangements would start in 2021 at the end of the proposed transition period if there was no long-term trade agreement at that point and would continue until one was in place.

An explanatory note from the Government said a system of declarations for goods traded between the North and the Republic meant only a "very small proportion" would be subject to physical customs checks.

When they were necessary, it said that they would take place well away from the border, at the traders' premises or other designated locations.

At the same time the plan proposes a "zone of regulatory compliance" covering the entire island of Ireland, tying the North to EU rules for the trade in manufactured goods and agri-food products.

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