Pound slumps as PM Boris Johnson’s Brexit rhetoric toughens
LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Wales on Tuesday on a national tour to reassure voters that his push to leave the European Union “come what may” won’t hurt the economy and rip apart the U.K. The move failed to persuade currency markets, where the pound slid to a new 28-month low amid rising concerns about a chaotic no-deal Brexit.
A day after Johnson was booed in Scotland, he faced another tough reception from farmers — a group central to the Welsh economy — who fear economic havoc if Britain leaves the EU without a divorce deal. They say millions of sheep might have to be slaughtered if tariffs are slapped on lamb exports to the EU.
Johnson said after visiting a south Wales poultry farm that his Conservative government would support farmers if their markets became “tricky.”
“We will look after the farming sector,” he said. “We will make sure that they have the support that they need.”
But National Farmers’ Union President Minette Batters said Britain exports 40% of its lamb and mutton, most of it to EU nations.
″(If) we’re tariffed out of the EU market, where does that 40% go?” she said.
Helen Roberts of the National Sheep Association accused Johnson of playing “Russian roulette” with the agriculture industry.
Johnson’s government argues that leaving the 28-nation trading bloc and its Common Agricultural Policy will be “a historic opportunity to introduce new schemes to support farming” and will open up new markets for U.K. agricultural exports.
The government’s Wales Secretary Alun Cairns said “90% of global growth will come from outside of the EU.” However, trade with the EU accounts for almost half of all British exports and any new trade deals are years away.
The Welsh trip follows Johnson’s visit Monday to Scotland, where he was booed by protesters and warned by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that his vow to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31 with or without a divorce deal was “dangerous.”
Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the EU divided the country and also strained the bonds among the four nations that make up the U.K.: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
A majority of voters in England and Wales backed leaving in the referendum, while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. That has emboldened Scotland’s nationalist government to demand another vote on independence, arguing that Scotland should not be forced out of the EU against its will.
In Parliament last week, Scottish National Party lawmaker Ian Blackford mockingly welcomed Johnson as “the last prime minister of the United Kingdom.”
Johnson also plans to visit Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. to share a land border with the EU. The status of that currently invisible frontier with the Republic of Ireland has become the main stumbling block to a Brexit deal.
The pound has fallen sharply in recent days as businesses warn that no amount of preparation can eliminate the economic damage if Britain crashes out of the EU trading bloc without a Brexit deal. The currency fell early Tuesday to $1.2120, its lowest value since March 2017.
“Investors’ main concern remains a hard no-deal Brexit, which has the potential to pull the economy into chaos,” said Fiona Cincotta, senior market analyst at City Index. “Boris Johnson’s new cabinet did little to alleviate those fears, taking a hard line with Europe on forthcoming negotiations.”
Johnson became prime minister last week after winning a Conservative Party leadership contest by promising the strongly pro-Brexit party membership that the U.K. will leave the EU on the scheduled date of Oct. 31, with or without a divorce deal.
The EU struck a withdrawal agreement with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, but it was rejected three times by Britain’s Parliament. Johnson is insisting the bloc make major changes to May’s spurned deal, including scrapping an insurance policy for the Irish border that has been rejected by U.K. lawmakers.
“We’re not aiming for a no-deal Brexit,” said Johnson, who looks set to paint the EU as the bad guy if there is no Brexit deal. “It’s up to the EU. It’s their call.”
There are currently no new Brexit negotiations planned between Britain and the bloc, and neither side appears to be backing down.
The EU insists it won’t reopen the 585-page withdrawal agreement it spent two years negotiating with May’s government, and particularly won’t remove the “backstop,” which is designed to ensure the Irish border remains free of customs posts or other barriers.
A hard Irish border would disrupt people and businesses on both sides, and could undermine one of the foundations of Northern Ireland’s peace process. Yet U.K. Brexit supporters hate the backstop because it requires Britain follow EU trade rules to ensure an open border.
Johnson’s office said he spoke by phone Tuesday with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, telling him “that his clear preference is to leave the EU with a deal, but it must be one that abolishes the backstop.”
Varadkar replied that “the backstop was necessary as a consequence of decisions taken in the U.K. and by the U.K. government,” the Irish leader’s office said.
It said Varadkar invited Johnson to Dublin for talks. Downing St. said only that the two leaders “agreed to stay in contact.”
Pan Pylas in London contributed to this story.
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