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Johnson rivals hold talks on stopping no-deal Brexit

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (front) makes his first statement in the House of Commons in London on July 25, 2019. Xinhua

LONDON (Reuters) – Former Chancellor Philip Hammond, who quit the government last week before Boris Johnson took over as prime minister, has held secret talks with the opposition Labour Party about how to stop a no-deal Brexit, a newspaper said.

Hammond, who has long opposed leaving the European Union without a transition deal to soften the economic shock, met Labour’s top Brexit official, Kier Starmer, shortly after he quit the government, the Observer said.

The newspaper said Hammond and Starmer agreed to work with other senior lawmakers including former Conservative minister Oliver Letwin to thrash out how best to use parliamentary votes to torpedo a no-deal outcome.

“The political direction of travel under Boris Johnson is clear,” Starmer told the newspaper. “And so it is more important than ever that we build a strong cross-party alliance to stop a no-deal Brexit.”

Johnson has said he wants to strike a new Brexit deal with the EU but is prepared to take Britain out of the bloc without one on Oct 31, if necessary.

He has also said he would not take off the table the possibility of suspending parliament if lawmakers threatened to block a no-deal Brexit.

Meanwhile Johnson on Saturday cautioned the European Union that the “anti-democratic” Irish backstop must be ditched if they were to strike a Brexit divorce deal.

Johnson, since taking office on Wednesday, has repeatedly said that if the EU continues to refuse to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by his predecessor Theresa May, then he will take Britain out on Oct. 31 without a deal.

His biggest demand is that the most hotly-contested element of the Brexit divorce agreement, the Irish border backstop, be struck out of the Withdrawal Agreement, a demand that has angered Ireland and perturbed other EU capitals.

“If we get rid of the backstop, whole and entire, then we are making a lot of progress,” Johnson said, when asked if it was only the Irish border backstop that he wanted changed.

Speaking before a Stephenson’s Rocket, a 19th century steam locomotive, in the northern England city of Manchester, Johnson dedicated most of his speech to improving public services, transport and the internet and driving up economic growth.

“Our post-industrial towns have a proud, great heritage but an even greater future. Their best years lie ahead of them,” he said, announcing new long-term rail links and promising immediate improvements to bus services.

That message, aimed at what Johnson called “left behind” towns, is seen as the early stages of an election campaign, even though Britain is not due a parliamentary election until 2022 and Johnson is adamant he will not hold one before Brexit.

His Conservative Party does not have a majority in parliament, is divided over how to deliver Brexit and under threat of a no-confidence vote when parliament returns in September.

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