Boris Johnson has played down the prospect of an imminent Brexit breakthrough, saying it would not be easy to persuade Brussels to shift its stance.
The Prime Minister, who held talks with Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron this week, said he was making progress but was “telling people not to hold their breath”.
Mr Johnson wants the backstop – the contingency plan to prevent a hard border with Ireland – removed from the Withdrawal Agreement thrashed out with the European Union by predecessor Theresa May.
He acknowledged that the EU was “very hard over against it” and persuading Brussels to change would “take some time” – and the UK would have to prepare for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.
Speaking to reporters in Devon, Mr Johnson said the “mood music” on his visits to Germany and France was “very good”.
“They could see that we want a deal, they can see the problems with the backstop.
“Clearly, Angela Merkel thinks that the solutions can be found within 30 days – actually what she meant was if you can do it in two years, you can certainly do it in 30 days.
“But I want to caution everybody, OK? Because this is not going to be a cinch, this is not going to be easy. We will have to work very hard to get this thing done.”
He insisted there were “lots of ways” to achieve frictionless trade at the border in Northern Ireland.
“But to persuade our EU friends and partners, who are very, very, very hard over against it, will take some time,” he said.
“I’m afraid we will have to prepare to come out without an agreement and we can do that, we are very confident that we will be OK because we will have all sorts of preparations in place.”
He added: “We are making progress but I am just telling people not to hold their breath, because I have seen the way these Brussels negotiations work.”
It was “always on the steps of the court, as it were, that the deal is done”, he said.
Meanwhile, the Government said it was determined British cities and communities will still receive “similar” funding if EU cash is withdrawn after Brexit.
Jake Berry, minister for the so-called Northern Powerhouse, claimed British versions of structural funds from the EU would help the UK flourish and there would be new trading opportunities after Brexit.
He told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “First of all, it is important to note it is not the EU’s money, of course.
“It’s our money that they are top-slicing and then sending some of it back in Liverpool.
“I lived in Liverpool in the 1990s, I know the huge difference it made to this city having Objective 1 status.
“I am determined that this UK-shared prosperity fund, a British version of those structural funds, will support great cities and communities across the north of England in a similar way.”
He added: “I think Brexit will be good for the Northern Powerhouse because it will enable us to trade on free-trade terms with countries around the globe. It is not about turning our back to Europe.”