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