PM ‘mis­led pub­lic on his own Brexit deal’

The Guardian - - Front Page - Heather Ste­wart Jen­nifer Rankin Lisa O’Car­roll

Boris John­son was ac­cused last night of mis­lead­ing the pub­lic about his own Brexit deal, af­ter footage emerged of him telling ex­porters in North­ern Ire­land that they wouldn’t need to fill in ex­tra paper­work.

Af­ter a rocky start to the gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign that saw Ja­cob Rees-Mogg apol­o­gise for com­ments about Gren­fell, and the Welsh sec­re­tary, Alun Cairns, re­sign, footage emerged of John­son re­gal­ing busi­nesses with the ben­e­fits of his deal.

The video, shot on Thurs­day night in North­ern Ire­land, showed him re­as­sur­ing wor­ried

ex­porters they wouldn’t have to fill in cus­toms dec­la­ra­tions when they send goods across the Ir­ish Sea. In an­swer to a ques­tion from an ex­porter about whether his busi­ness would have to com­plete ex­tra forms, John­son said: “You will ab­so­lutely not.”

He rec­om­mended that if any busi­ness was asked to fill in such paper­work, they should tele­phone the prime min­is­ter, “and I will di­rect them to throw that form in the bin”.

That ap­peared to con­tra­dict the Brexit sec­re­tary, Stephen Bar­clay, who gave tes­ti­mony to the House of Lords re­cently that busi­nesses would need to com­plete “exit sum­mary dec­la­ra­tions” when send­ing ship­ments from North­ern Ire­land to the rest of the UK.

The shadow Brexit sec­re­tary, Keir Starmer, said: “This is a prime min­is­ter who ei­ther doesn’t know the de­tails of the deal he has ne­go­ti­ated, or isn’t be­ing straight about it.

“If this deal comes into force, it’s an in­ter­na­tional treaty that will be legally bind­ing. It’s not for Boris John­son to waive or ig­nore the obli­ga­tions in the deal he has ne­go­ti­ated.

“Boris John­son’s mak­ing it up as he goes along. This is no way to seek to run the coun­try.”

Un­der John­son’s re­vised with­drawal agree­ment, ham­mered out in Brus­sels last month, North­ern Ire­land would con­tinue to fol­low the EU cus­toms code, which in­cludes ob­serv­ing cus­toms dec­la­ra­tions and other for­mal­i­ties.

But an­swer­ing ques­tions af­ter a ram­bling speech that was cap­tured on video and went vi­ral, the PM said: “There will be no forms, no checks, no bar­ri­ers of any kind. You will have un­fet­tered ac­cess.”

His re­marks were met with in­credulity at the Euro­pean par­lia­ment. The Dutch lib­eral MEP So­phie in’t Veld said: “Ei­ther Boris John­son doesn’t un­der­stand his Brexit deal or he isn’t telling the truth to vot­ers – he has been de­ceiv­ing the pub­lic re­peat­edly on Brexit.”

The MEP, who has fol­lowed the Brexit de­bate closely, added: “The best deal Bri­tain has is the spe­cial one it has now as a full mem­ber of the EU.”

Martin Schird­e­wan, a left­wing Ger­man mem­ber of the Euro­pean par­lia­ment’s Brexit steer­ing group, told the Guardian that John­son had “only a very vague idea” of the with­drawal agree­ment. “He ei­ther doesn’t un­der­stand or is play­ing elec­toral pol­i­tics with peo­ple’s liveli­hoods; it is ir­re­spon­si­ble ei­ther way.”

John­son was also ridiculed for hail­ing the ben­e­fits for North­ern Ire­land of an ar­range­ment that will leave it more closely tied to the EU than he is pre­pared to al­low for the rest of the UK.

“Ac­tu­ally, North­ern Ire­land has got a great deal. You keep free move­ment, you keep ac­cess to the sin­gle mar­ket and, as it says in the deal, [you keep] un­fet­tered ac­cess to the UK,” he said.

By free move­ment he was ap­par­ently re­fer­ring to the com­mon travel area on the is­land of Ire­land.

The is­sue of cus­toms ar­range­ments goes to the heart of the col­lapse of the govern­ment’s re­la­tions with the Demo­cratic Union­ist party, which has de­scribed the Brexit deal as a “dis­grace” and a “be­trayal” be­cause of the new cus­toms paper­work lo­cal busi­nesses sell­ing goods to Great Bri­tain will be re­quired to com­plete.

On a visit to the Tayto crisp fac­tory in Tan­dragee, County Ar­magh, on Thurs­day, John­son in­sisted his crit­ics had got the wrong end of the stick.

“There will not be checks, and I speak as the prime min­is­ter of the United King­dom, and a pas­sion­ate union­ist. There will not be checks on goods go­ing from North­ern Ire­land to Great Bri­tain be­cause we’re the govern­ment of the United King­dom and we will not in­sti­tute or im­ple­ment or en­act such checks,” he said.

“The idea that Tayto crisps from Tan­dragee are go­ing to be vet­ted by some process is just non­sense.”

While there are no phys­i­cal checks in­volved in the spe­cial North­ern Ire­land ar­range­ments, apart from anti-smug­gling con­trols led by in­tel­li­gence, the new paper­work that must ac­com­pany tran­sit­ing goods is be­ing seen by crit­ics in­clud­ing the DUP as the erec­tion of a trade bar­rier be­tween North­ern Ire­land and Great Bri­tain.

The DUP has said the new paper­work is an un­ac­cept­able breach of the prom­ise there would be “un­fet­tered” ac­cess to Great Bri­tain for man­u­fac­tur­ers in North­ern Ire­land.

The cam­paign visit was one of the few op­por­tu­ni­ties John­son has had to stray off script in a series of care­fully con­trolled events. He has been re­peat­ing that only his party can “get Brexit done” – but the row over cus­toms forms un­der­lined the risk of con­tin­u­ing to be bogged down in the de­tails of his deal.

‘It’s not for John­son to waive or ig­nore obli­ga­tions in a deal he has ne­go­ti­ated. He’s mak­ing it up as he goes along’

Keir Starmer

Shadow Brexit sec­re­tary

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