Boris Johnson has warned not to expect a “New York breakthrough” on Brexit as he landed in the United States ahead of two days of discussions with world leaders.
The prime minister will meet France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel for a three-way discussion about subjects including Brexit and Iran, as he searches for a way of securing a deal before the end of next month.
He will also meet Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, in the margins of the UN General Assembly, though much of the work will focus on climate change and Iran.
Mr Johnson landed on Sunday night, as he waits to hear the outcome of a Supreme Court case into whether his decision to prorogue, or send away, MPs for five weeks was lawful.
Speaking to reporters on the plane, the prime minister played down the chances of the discussions transforming the situation.
“There will be discussions. I would caution you all not to think that this will be the moment – New York – it might be, but I don’t wish to elevate the belief that there will be a New York breakthrough. I’m not going to be pessimistic, we’ll be pushing ahead but there is still work to be done.”
Pressed on where the Friday night rejection of his proposals by Brussels had left him, Mr Johnson said: “I think that a great deal of progress has been made in the sense that, you know, think about when I first became PM, everyone was saying there was no chance of changing the existing agreement, and I think that nobody is saying that.”
He said the agreement on the table needed to change, even though Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, told Sky News this week that he would not accept the re-opening of the withdrawal agreement.
The prime minister said: “Everybody can see in order to get a deal we need to change the existing agreement. You’ll also have heard colleagues around the EU say they no longer have an attachment to the backstop – that’s very encouraging.”
He went on: “However, there are clearly still gaps and still difficulties. What we are working for – and we can see the way to do it – is a solution that enables the UK and the EU to respect the principles of the single market, to allow an open border on Northern Ireland, to respect achievements of the Northern Ireland peace process but also to allow the whole of the UK to come out of the EU.
“And there is a way to do that. I think colleagues around the table in Brussels can see how we might get that. What it will take is political will to get that. I think it’s fair to say I’m still in same position I was – cautiously optimistic.”
He also defended his decision to prorogue parliament.
He said that parliament was only losing three or four days of discussion when it had been debating Brexit for three years and there would be an opportunity for a further Commons debate after the EU Council on 17 and 18 October.
Mr Johnson was also asked about Dominic Cummings, his controversial adviser, and whether he had full confidence in his actions and comments. The prime minister replied: “It’s the role of advisers to advise… and ministers to decide.”