With trade talks between the UK and EU in their final hours, Brexit was top of the agenda at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions.
The Labour leader Keir Starmer was critical of Boris Johnson’s handling of the issue, telling MPs:
“The Prime Minister said he had a deal. He didn’t.”
But the evidence Labour offered to support the claim doesn’t add up. Here’s why.
Which deal was ‘oven-ready’?
The Conservatives made much of their “oven-ready” deal before the last election.
But in recent days, there’s been some debate over whether “oven-ready” referred to the Withdrawal Agreement – which set the terms of our immediate departure on 31 January this year – or to the long-term free trade deal that’s still being thrashed out.
Labour tell us that this is the basis of Sir Keir’s claim: that the Conservatives muddled the two deals in the minds of the public before the election, wrongly giving the impression that the free trade deal was in the bag.
They gave FactCheck three examples to support the claim. But we’re not convinced that any of them is conclusive.
The Nissan visit
Labour cite Mr Johnson’s comments on a pre-election visit to Nissan’s Sunderland factory: “the thing about the deal we’ve got ready to go is it does protect the supply chains, it keeps them intact, it makes sure that we have complete equivalence when it comes to our standards, our industrial requirements and all the rest of it…”
Labour say these benefits can only be achieved with a free trade deal, and therefore Mr Johnson was saying that he had a free trade deal “ready to go”.
But Mr Johnson’s comments here would also apply to the Withdrawal Agreement, which preserves – albeit temporarily – the regulations the UK adopted from the EU during its membership for the purposes of the transition period. From a business perspective, nothing would change on the day after Brexit. He adds “so as we come out, it’s all protected”, again suggesting it’s the Withdrawal Agreement he has in mind.
And the Prime Minister spells this out a few minutes later: “we have a decent deal, it gets us out on January 31 […] but what it also does is it keeps us in a state of grace, a state of equivalence with our European Union friends and partners, so the zero tariff, zero quota arrangements that we have, the ‘just in time’ supply chains, they remain absolutely there, perfect and intact”.
To be fair to Labour, we think Mr Johnson could have been clearer at this event that once the Withdrawal Agreement was passed, there would be another round of negotiations to secure a free trade deal – that the “state of grace” was only temporary.
But we don’t think that this is smoking-gun proof that the Conservatives said they had a free trade deal sewn up before the last election, as Sir Keir claimed.
The ‘break from talking about Brexit’
Labour told us that on 13 December 2019, Mr Johnson “promised” a “permanent break from talking about Brexit”, which they say “is not possible without a free trade deal”.
But that quote looks rather different in context. Standing outside Downing Street after the election result, the Prime Minister said: “I know that after five weeks frankly of electioneering this country deserves a break from wrangling, a break from politics, and a permanent break from talking about Brexit”.
In the same speech, he alluded to the negotiations ahead: “now is the moment – precisely as we leave the EU – to let those natural feelings find renewed expression, in building a new partnership, which is one of the great projects for next year, and as we work together with the EU […] redoubling our trading relationship”.
The Rishi Sunak interview
Labour told us that on 9 December 2019, Rishi Sunak said in a BBC Radio 4 Today interview: “We won’t need to plan for no deal, because we have a deal”. This is what Sir Keir levelled at the Prime Minister in the Commons on Wednesday.
The Labour leader actually misquoted Mr Sunak slightly. Although his interview is no longer available on the Radio 4 website, the BBC shared the audio with FactCheck. The quote is: “We won’t need to plan for no deal because we will have a deal to leave with.” (Emphases added).
It isn’t clear from presenter Nick Robinson’s questions which “deal” he is asking about at this point in the interview – the Withdrawal Agreement or a future free trade deal with the EU. Mr Sunak appears to think they are talking about the immediate Withdrawal Agreement when he describes “a deal to leave with”.
When Robinson clarifies that he is asking about a “trade deal”, Mr Sunak replies: “There is going to be a trade deal, Nick. […] The trade deal, the outlines of it, the framework of it, is already there, contained in the political declaration in quite a lot of detail and it talks about an ambitious, comprehensive trading relationship […] and we can go on and sort the details of that over the course of next year.”
Mr Sunak was certainly bullish about the prospects of getting a free trade deal. But this is not the same as asserting that one is ready to go – he is saying that preliminary work has been done, with more needed in 2020.
What else did the Conservatives say?
There are various examples from before the election of senior Conservatives acknowledging that the UK did not yet have a free trade deal with the EU.
On 5 December 2019, the Prime Minister was asked on ITV’s This Morning: “How long will the trade deals take? Years?” To which Mr Johnson replied: “No, we will get many new deals with countries around the world, but with the EU, we can build a new free trade partnership by the end of next year”.
In the ITV Leaders’ Debate on 19 November 2019, moderator Julie Etchingham asked: “You reckon you can get your divorce deal done and a trade deal done by December 2020?” Mr Johnson appears to nod. Pushed on that deadline, he says: “Look, we have ample time to do a fantastic free trade deal with our friends and partners in the EU”.
In the BBC Leaders’ Debate on 6 December 2019, Mr Johnson at one point does appear to conflate the two deals. But when presenter Nick Robinson interjects to clarify that the government does not yet have a free trade deal, the Prime Minister says: “We have ample time to get on and build a new free trade partnership, not just with the EU, but with countries around the world.”
On 3 November 2019, Rishi Sunak was asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr whether the government would model the effects of different Brexit scenarios. The Chancellor replied: “Obviously you can’t model a deal that hasn’t yet been negotiated”.
He draws a distinction between the two deals a few seconds later: “There is already an impact assessment for the Withdrawal Agreement, that’s the deal that’s been negotiated. But when it comes to the future relationship, which I think is what you’re talking about, Andrew, it’s when you get to that, and when you negotiate it, of course that would be modelled as you would expect”.
And the Conservative manifesto states: “Our deal is the only one on the table. It is signed, sealed and ready. It puts the whole country on a path to a new free trade agreement with the EU.”
A Labour party spokesperson told us: “The Prime Minister knew exactly what he was doing in obscuring the facts. He was treating the public with contempt then, and is doing the same now.”
Keir Starmer claimed: “The Prime Minister said he had a deal – he didn’t”. Labour say the Conservatives conflated the “oven-ready” Withdrawal Agreement with the free trade deal still being thrashed out – wrongly giving the impression that the latter was already in the bag.
It’s possible that at some point before the election, a senior Conservative might have given that impression. But we haven’t seen a case of that, and the three examples Labour have given to FactCheck to back up Sir Keir’s claim aren’t convincing.
In a pre-election factory visit, Mr Johnson listed benefits of the deal he had “ready to go” – benefits Labour say could only be achieved by a free trade deal. But those comments were also applicable to the Withdrawal Agreement. Mr Johnson could have been clearer at this event that the Withdrawal Agreement and its benefits were only temporary. But this is not definitive proof of his having claimed a free trade deal was already secured.
Labour told us the Prime Minister “promised” Britain “a permanent break from talking about Brexit”, which Labour say could only be achieved with a free trade deal. Though he actually said that a break is what the country “deserves” after the election and in the same speech referred to the EU trade negotiations ahead.
Labour also pointed us to a Rishi Sunak comment from 2019. Though, when quoted fully, it’s clear that the government had not yet negotiated a free trade agreement, but had so far only got “the outlines of it, the framework of it”, with details to “sort out” in 2020.
We have also found several examples – including at the BBC and ITV Leaders’ Debates and in the party manifesto – of the Conservatives acknowledging before the election that they did not yet have a free trade deal with the EU.