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PM sidesteps allegations he has put Britain on course to a 'harder Brexit'

House of Commons/PA Wire

Boris Johnson sidestepped accusations from European leaders that he is on course to deliver a "harder Brexit" after his thumping General Election win.

The Prime Minister appeared to set himself up for combative trade talks in the new year after ruling out adhering to Brussels' rules after 2020 when the transition period ends.

He altered his own Brexit Bill this week to make it unlawful for the Government to extend the trade talks into 2021, giving negotiators an unprecedented 11 months to thrash out a free trade deal.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar warned that Mr Johnson looked embarked on a "harder Brexit than we anticipated" and said he feared the UK wanted to "undercut" its European rivals on food, health and product safety after exit day.

The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier, in an article for the Project Syndicate website, similarly said competition on social and environmental standards between UK and the EU bloc would "lead only to a race to the bottom".

Mr Johnson was asked about the Taoiseach's comments while visiting British troops in Estonia on Saturday, but dodged answering the question directly.

He replied: "What everybody wants to do is put Brexit behind us on January 31 and move on, and there's a lot of goodwill and a lot of energy now about building the new deep and special partnership, and that's what we're going to do."

The Conservative Party leader said there had been a "positive feeling" during his bilateral meeting with Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas in the capital Tallinn.

Should the EU and UK agree to a trade deal before the end of 2020, Estonia is one of the 27 EU countries in the bloc that will have to ratify the new terms.

Mr Johnson also spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday, and Downing Street said the pair discussed negotiating an "ambitious trade agreement" after Britain leaves the EU.

The PM told MPs on Friday that the "oven was on" when it came to delivering Brexit next year, but said there would be "no alignment" to EU rules during any post-exit free trade deal.

"This will be with no alignment on EU rules, but instead with control of our own laws, and close and friendly relations," he told those on the green benches.

He made the comments after seeing his European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill passed by a 124 majority by MPs, paving the way for the UK to finalise its divorce from Brussels by the January 31 deadline.

Turning off from Brexit over the Christmas break, the PM turned his attention to other issues on Saturday by making a festive trip to visit British troops stationed in the Baltic country.

He helped serve Christmas lunch to the 850 British troops from the Queen's Royal Hussars at the Tapa military base near the capital Tallinn.

Along with personnel from Estonia, France and Denmark, they lead Nato's operation to protect Europe's eastern border with Russia.

He told the troops their service was "incredibly important" as it allowed people in Britain to have "Christmas in peace and security", noting how when he was a boy Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union.

His trip comes as Defence Secretary Ben Wallace warned serving personnel to be braced for cutbacks as part of his bid to secure more long-term investment in defence.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Political Thinking podcast, the Cabinet minister said the armed forces would need to "cut our cloth to match our ambition" in order to secure fresh funding for innovative technology.

Asked about the comments, the PM said: "We're the second biggest player in Nato, we're the biggest military in Europe - we believe in supporting our armed services.

"Obviously we do that in an efficient way but as you know we're increasing our budget by £2.2 billion - you know about all the investments that we're making in our armed services. Those will continue."

Downing Street faced criticism from their own benches when Peter Bottomley, the longest-serving Tory MP, called the alleged decision to boycott BBC Radio 4's Today programme "counterproductive".

Ministers have not been interviewed on the morning radio show since Mr Johnson's election victory, and the PM's chief aide Dominic Cummings reportedly told staff during the campaign not to listen to the flagship programme.

Mr Bottomley, the Father of the House of Commons, told the Saturday edition of the programme: "There are mistakes governments can make, even in their first week, and I personally think that not coming on the Today programme when invited is unwise, injudicious, counterproductive and if you want to have me on every time a minister says no, I'll come."

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