Day the deal was doomed

• Anony­mous brief­ing by No 10 source sig­nals talks are in tat­ters • An­gry re­crim­i­na­tions in Brus­sels at John­son’s ‘blame game’ strat­egy • EU pre­par­ing for ex­ten­sion that could last un­til next sum­mer

The Guardian - - Front Page - Heather Ste­wart Daniel Bof­fey Rowena Ma­son

Boris John­son’s Brexit plan ap­peared all but dead last night as the govern­ment ad­mit­ted there was lit­tle prospect of a deal be­fore 31 Oc­to­ber af­ter a day of fu­ri­ous re­crim­i­na­tions.

The prime min­is­ter spoke to the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varad­kar, on the phone last night af­ter a stormy 24 hours of brief­ing and counter-brief­ing – and amid grow­ing con­cerns even in John­son’s cab­i­net about his tac­tics.

In Brus­sels a fur­ther ex­ten­sion that could last as long to next sum­mer is now con­sid­ered al­most in­evitable de­spite John­son’s con­tin­ued in­sis­tence that the UK will leave with or with­out a deal.

A blame game erupted yes­ter­day morn­ing as the cab­i­net gath­ered in Down­ing Street, when an anony­mous source briefed se­lected jour­nal­ists about a pri­vate call be­tween the PM and Ger­many’s chan­cel­lor, An­gela Merkel.

The un­named fig­ure in No 10 claimed that Ber­lin’s in­sis­tence on keep­ing North­ern Ire­land in the EU cus­toms union made a deal “es­sen­tially im­pos­si­ble, not just now but ever”.

That mes­sage in­fu­ri­ated Don­ald Tusk, the Eu­ro­pean coun­cil pres­i­dent, who tweeted di­rectly at John­son: “What’s at stake is not win­ning some stupid blame game. At stake is the fu­ture of Europe and the UK as well as the se­cu­rity and in­ter­ests of our peo­ple. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an ex­ten­sion, you don’t want to re­voke. Quo vadis? [Where are you go­ing?]” That sen­ti­ment was echoed by the Eu­ro­pean com­mis­sion pres­i­dent, Jean-Claude Juncker, who said “no­body would come out a win­ner” in a no-deal sce­nario. “I do not ac­cept this ‘blame game’ of pin­ning the even­tual fail­ure of the ne­go­ti­a­tions on the EU. If that’s the case the ex­pla­na­tion is ac­tu­ally in the British camp be­cause the orig­i­nal sin is on the is­lands and not on the con­ti­nent.”

Juncker said John­son’s Brexit pro­pos­als would leave the UK with a re­la­tion­ship with the EU that was “less in­ti­mate than with Canada”.

A se­nior UK govern­ment source con­ceded that the talks had stalled, even though David Frost, the chief ne­go­tia­tor, was still try­ing to keep dis­cus­sions go­ing in Brus­sels.

“At some point we were go­ing to hit this rock on both sides on the cus­toms is­sue. If it’s the EU po­si­tion that North­ern Ire­land has to be in the cus­toms union, and that does ap­pear to be the case, that’s not ac­cept­able to us. Our po­si­tion is that we need to come out and that seems to be where we are stuck.”

Both sides agree that cus­toms ar­range­ments on the is­land of Ire­land are at the crux of the stand­off – al­though Brus­sels also re­jects what it re­gards as a DUP veto over plans to keep North­ern Ire­land’s reg­u­la­tions in line with the EU’s.

Fol­low­ing a brief­ing with the EU’s chief ne­go­tia­tor, the Irish for­eign min­is­ter, Si­mon Coveney, said John­son had told Varad­kar yes­ter­day even­ing that he still wanted a deal.

But Coveney said the “onus had to be back here in Brus­sels”. He told re­porters: “There are some in the UK who seem to be plan­ning for a gen­eral elec­tion ahead of try­ing to plan to get a deal.”

Nicky Mor­gan and Ju­lian Smith were among those who chal­lenged John­son dur­ing what sev­eral sources claimed was a tetchy cab­i­net meet­ing. When Mor­gan ques­tioned the PM about anony­mous brief­ings, he replied that min­is­ters

‘No­body would come out a win­ner in a no-deal sce­nario’

Jean-Claude Juncker EU com­mis­sion pres­i­dent

should lis­ten to him in­stead.

Af­ter the meet­ing was over, Smith is­sued a re­buke to the per­son who briefed anony­mously to the Spec­ta­tor – be­lieved to be the prime min­is­ter’s se­nior ad­viser, Do­minic Cum­mings – that the govern­ment would with­hold se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion from EU coun­tries who sup­port a Brexit de­lay.

“I am clear that any threat on with­draw­ing se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion with Ire­land is un­ac­cept­able. This is not in the in­ter­est of North­ern Ire­land or the union,” he tweeted.

The state­ment trig­gered spec­u­la­tion that he could re­sign, but sources close to Smith said he was “go­ing nowhere”. When John­son ar­rived in Down­ing Street in July, he in­sisted that all re­cruits to his cab­i­net sign up to the idea of pur­su­ing a no-deal Brexit if it proved im­pos­si­ble to strike an agree­ment with Brus­sels.

But some are pri­vately con­cerned about per­sis­tent sug­ges­tions the prime min­is­ter could try to cir­cum­vent the Benn law, which is aimed at forc­ing him to re­quest a de­lay if he

fails to strike a deal next week. Dur­ing an­gry ex­changes in the Com­mons yes­ter­day, the shadow Brexit sec­re­tary, Keir Starmer, ac­cused the PM of de­lib­er­ately mak­ing a pro­posal he knew Brus­sels would re­ject.

“Talks with the EU are col­laps­ing as we speak,” he said, re­spond­ing to a de­fi­ant state­ment by Michael Gove about no-deal readi­ness.

“The pro­pos­als that the govern­ment in­tro­duced last week were never go­ing to work, and in­stead of re­act­ing to the chal­lenge by adapt­ing them they are in­tent on col­laps­ing the talks and en­gag­ing in a reck­less blame game. It will be work­ing peo­ple who pay the price. The prime min­is­ter should be here to ac­count for his ac­tions.”

John­son and Varad­kar have agreed to meet in the com­ing days, with both sides keen to avoid blame for no deal.

The Eu­ro­pean par­lia­ment pres­i­dent, David Sas­soli, emerged down­beat from talks with John­son in Lon­don last night, telling re­porters the govern­ment’s plans were “not an ac­tual pro­posal”.

Sas­soli ap­peared ex­as­per­ated, say­ing the prime min­is­ter had re­fused to con­sider any new holis­tic pro­pos­als, in­stead re­peat­ing that the UK would leave on 31 Oc­to­ber come what may. This lack of flex­i­bil­ity was “ex­tremely sad”, said Sas­soli.

Say­ing he had urged the PM to take his re­spon­si­bil­ity for find­ing a so­lu­tion

se­ri­ously, Sas­soli said that at one point the PM told him “I should not be sad”.

Asked if he thought John­son was se­ri­ous about a deal, the Ital­ian MEP re­peated that John­son gave no new pro­pos­als and merely in­sisted on a 31 Oc­to­ber de­par­ture: “I think each and every one of us must reach the con­clu­sions that they believe the most ap­pro­pri­ate.”

He added: “I sin­cerely hope that there will be a wake-up call. Up to the very last minute it will be pos­si­ble for the Eu­ro­pean Union and par­lia­ment to try and find a deal.”

In Brus­sels, diplo­mats are be­gin­ning to turn their minds to the length of any po­ten­tial ex­ten­sion. A “range of dates” will now be in play at the meet­ing of Eu­ro­pean lead­ers next week but sources sug­gested the nat­u­ral cut off date would be June.

With an ex­ten­sion of the UK’s EU mem­ber­ship now look­ing in­evitable, other diplo­matic sources sug­gested an un­likely out­lier for an end-date could even be ahead of a pos­si­ble gen­eral elec­tion so as to force the Com­mons into ac­cept­ing a deal.

MPs were sent home last night as par­lia­ment is sus­pended for a few days in the run-up to next week’s Queen’s speech.

Jour­nal Rafael Behr Page 1

Jour­nal Leader com­ment Page 2

Jour­nal David Edger­ton Page 3

PHO­TO­GRAPH: NEIL HALL/EPA

▲ Boris John­son wel­comes Eu­ro­pean par­lia­ment pres­i­dent David Sas­soli to No 10 for Brexit talks yes­ter­day

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