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Boris Johnson Brexit speech fails to lift the pound and bleak business mood

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivering his speech at the Conservative party conference at the Manchester Convention Centre. Photo: PA

The UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s plans to break the Brexit deadlock would leave Northern Ireland stranded with “friction on all sides,” according to a leading business chief.

Johnson said in his speech to the Conservative party conference that the UK would hand the EU new proposals today in a bid to secure a last-ditch deal, with less than a month until the scheduled Brexit day on 31 October.

The pound remained flat against the dollar (GBPUSD=X) after his speech on Wednesday, with only a slight recovery of losses earlier in the day as leaked details of his plans and EU reactions trickled out.

It hovered around $1.23, with investors’ apparent fears still high that Johnson’s plans could face a poor reception in Brussels.

Details of his so-called “two borders, four years” plan for the island of Ireland have not yet been published, but leaked reports have already drawn heavy criticism from the Irish government and EU sources.

The plans are reported to involve highly controversial customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, but Johnson pledged in his speech they would not be “at or near” the border.

READ MORE: EU officials accuse Johnson of wanting Brexit talks to fail

They could also involve a new regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK for four years, despite longstanding fears among Northern Irish politicians over fracturing ties with Britain.

Johnson promised the “renewable democratic consent” of Northern Ireland’s executive and assembly would be guaranteed, offering them the chance to decide in four years’ time whether to stay aligned to EU or potentially different British trade rules.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said it was “not clear the government’s proposals as reported move us forward.”

She added: “They cannot be the final destination, stranding Northern Ireland with friction on all sides. But firms will desperately hope there is room for further urgent conversation between UK, EU and devolved nations.

“No-deal would be a historic failure of statecraft. We urge all sides to keep the door open on the chance to get Brexit done with a deal.

“There are 21 working days to go to get a deal and not a second to waste.”

READ MORE: Construction suffers ‘devastating’ downturn as Brexit hits building projects

She welcomed Johnson’s ambitions to promote growth, infrastructure, tackling inequality, skills, sustainability and trade.

But she said Britain was “at a crossroads,” with one leading to Johnson’s optimistic vision and another leading to no-deal – “a swamp that will slow the UK’s every step for years to come.”

There are few signs the draft ideas could be developed into a workable policy, signed off by EU leaders, approved by parliament and implemented with just weeks left until Britain’s legal departure date.

Johnson has made clear he will not accept a Brexit delay, despite parliament voting to order him to request one from the EU.

The Conservative leader said the issue boiled down to “what is essentially a technical discussion of the exact nature of future customs checks,” warning Britain would still leave if no deal could be reached.

But BBC political journalist Nick Robinson tweeted: “The EU see it as about peace in Ireland, defending the European ideal and the single market. This gulf in understanding may not be bridgeable.”

Ireland’s deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said on Tuesday leaked proposals were “no basis for an agreement” and “concerning to say the least.”

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