UK's Johnson seeks to rule out Brexit delay beyond 2020

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is talking tough about Brexit after winning a big majority in Parliament

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is signalling that he won’t soften his Brexit stance now that he has a majority in Parliament, seeking to rule out any extension of an end-of 2020 deadline to strike a trade deal with the European Union.

Johnson’s office says the government will insert a clause in its Withdrawal Agreement Bill to rule out extending trade negotiations with the EU beyond next year. That could mean Britain leaving without a deal at the start of 2021, a prospect that alarms many U.K. businesses.

The pound plunged Tuesday on the news, falling 1% to less than $1.32.

U.K. lawmakers are meeting in Parliament Tuesday for the first time since last week’s general election, and the bill is due to get its first vote in the House of Commons on Friday.

It implements a divorce agreement struck between Britain and the EU. It will see the U.K. leave the 28-nation bloc on Jan. 31 and enter a transition period until the end of 2020 while a new trade deal is negotiated. During the transition period, Britain will effectively remain member of the EU, though without voting rights.

The withdrawal agreement allows for the transition to be extended until the end of 2022. Johnson has said repeatedly he won’t use the extra time, although trade experts say striking a new deal in only 11 months will be challenging.

Inserting a legal clause into domestic law ruling out an extension would underscore Johnson’s commitment to leave the EU in full by the end of next year, though it would not prevent his government changing its mind later.

Sam Lowe of think tank the Center for European Reform said Johnson likely believed a “firm deadline” would help speed up negotiations. But he told the BBC the government “could easily introduce a later bill saying ‘actually we could extend it.’”

“It’s a firmer deadline, but of course there is still some flexibility,” Lowe said.

Opposition politicians said the move would cause more uncertainty for businesses, who are still unsure what Britain’s trade relationship with the EU will be, three-and-a-half years after the U.K. voted to leave the bloc.

Johnson’s Conservatives won an 80-strong majority in Parliament in last week’s general election. The majority gives Johnson the ability to overcome opposition to his Brexit plans and implement his legislative agenda — unlike predecessor Theresa May, who led a minority administration.

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