Johnson 'cautiously optimistic' of new Brexit deal
By Gavin Cordon and Sam Blewett, PA Political Staff
Boris Johnson has said he is "cautiously optimistic" of getting a Brexit deal as he prepares for talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
The Prime Minister will travel to Luxembourg on Monday for his first meeting with Mr Juncker and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier since taking office in July, Downing Street said.
Speaking in Rotherham at the launch of his plan to re-vitalise the Northern Powerhouse initiative, Mr Johnson said there was the "rough shape" of a deal in place.
However, he was heckled by a member of audience who told him to "get back to Parliament" to sort out "the mess that you have created".
Mr Johnson brushed off the interruption, insisting MPs would have "ample time" to consider Brexit when Parliament returns next month after a five-week suspension.
He said recent meetings with Irish premier Leo Varadkar, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron had made "a good deal of progress" towards an agreement.
But he made clear that if he was unable to get a new deal, he would not be deterred by "shenanigans" at Westminster from taking Britain out of the EU by the October 31 deadline.
His comments came after Commons Speaker John Bercow warned on Thursday that MPs would act "forcefully" to prevent the Prime Minister pushing through a no-deal Brexit against the will of the House.
In response to reporters' questions, Mr Johnson said his meetings with Mr Juncker and Mr Barnier would be an opportunity to discuss the ideas they had been working on.
"We are working incredibly hard to get a deal. There is the rough shape of the deal to be done. I would say I'm cautiously optimistic," he said.
Despite Mr Johnson's upbeat assessment, Downing Street sources played down the prospect of a breakthrough on Monday, cautioning there was still "a long way to go".
Earlier, Mr Varadkar said the gap between the two sides over the crucial issue of the Northern Ireland backstop remained "very wide".
"We have always said we would be willing to look at alternative arrangements, but what we're seeing falls far short," Mr Varadkar told RTE radio.
"We are exploring what is possible. The gap is very wide but we will fight for and work for a deal until the last moment, but not at any cost."
On Thursday, Mr Barnier told MEPs that he had "no reason to be optimistic" about the prospects for a deal.
Meanwhile, DUP leader Arlene Foster poured cold water on reports the party was ready to soften its "red lines" of the backstop issue to help Mr Johnson get a deal.
The Times reported the DUP was prepared to accept some EU rules after Brexit as part of a new agreement to replace the backstop - intended to ensure there is no return of a hard border with the Republic.
It said the party was ready to drop its objections to regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK - something it has vehemently resisted.
However, Mrs Foster said they remained opposed to what would amount to a Northern Ireland-only backstop with a border in the Irish Sea.
"UK must leave as one nation. We are keen to see a sensible deal but not one that divides the internal market of the UK," she tweeted.
"We will not support any arrangements that create a barrier to East West trade. Anonymous sources lead to nonsense stories."
In Brussels, a European Commission spokeswoman said Mr Juncker was looking forward to "working constructively" with the Prime Minister when they meet on Monday.
She said the talks, over a working lunch, would be held at a "neutral location" rather than the British embassy or a Commission venue.
Mr Johnson appeared to hit back at Mr Bercow after the Speaker warned MPs were ready to use "procedural creativity" in the Commons to block him if he tried to force through a no-deal Brexit in breach of the so-called Benn Act.
"Whatever the shenanigans that may be going on at Westminster, we will get on with delivering our agenda and preparing to take this country out of the EU on October 31," he said.