swindlers’ list

‘Immature’ No 10 briefings trigger another day of Brexit trouble
Jennifer Rankin, Rowena Mason, Groon, Oct 8 2019

The first sign of trouble was in the dawn news bulletins. In a long missive the Spectator published overnight, an anonymous No 10 source, widely presumed to be Dominic Cummings, predicted that Brexit talks would “probably end this week” and blamed Leo Varadkar, who it was claimed had “gone very cold.” The nameless source warned that EU countries supporting an extension of article 50 “will go to the bottom of the queue” on future cooperation with the UK. While the incendiary briefing was being condemned on the airwaves by the recently departed cabinet minister Amber Rudd as “desperate” and something to make the government “ashamed,” Boris Johnson was on the phone to Angela Merkel. Neither London nor Berlin would offer any detailed official account of their phone call, in line with diplomatic protocol, but by 10am another explosive anonymous briefing from a No 10 source was lighting up social media with incredible claims about what the German chancellor was meant to have said, and with that the Brexit blame game had gone into full swing. The unknown figure in Downing Street claimed Merkel was making a deal “essentially impossible not just now but for ever,” by insisting that Northern Ireland must remain in full regulatory alignment and a customs union.

At his regular lobby briefing at midday, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman refused or was unable to say whether this was an accurate description of the meeting or represented No 10’s official position. He was listening to the phone call between Johnson and Merkel, he acknowledged, but he would only tell reporters that it had been a “full and frank exchange,” a coded way of saying there had been an argument between the two leaders. Diplomatic protocol dictates that the official spokesman never comments on remarks made by a foreign leader in a confidential phone call, making the No 10 source’s briefing all the more remarkable. Donald Tusk had read the reports while travelling to Berlin. He was going to see Merkel at the chancellery as part of a routine tour of European capitals before next week’s EU summit, where Brexit is again crowding out the agenda. Tusk, an anglophile former Polish prime minister with a sharp turn of phrase, has been deeply frustrated by what he sees as Downing Street’s attempt to avoid responsibility. As his car headed to the chancellery, he decided it was time to hit back and accused Johnson directly of playing “some stupid blame game” and making a deal impossible.

He was not alone in that view. In Brussels, European diplomats were aghast at what they saw as the No 10 spin machine out of control. One senior diplomat said of the latest No 10 briefings:

It’s incredibly immature. Kids in the kindergarten behave more maturely than this. It’s amazing. That’s all I can say.

The diplomat told the Guardian it might be better to simply ignore the statements, suggesting they could not represent the strategy of a serious country. The diplomat said::

This is so strange and immature. This can’t be government policy. This can’t be a majority opinion in Downing Street.

The same diplomat described No 10’s account of the call with Merkel as “an incredible distortion of facts”, saying she would have repeated the EU’s longstanding position that a customs border was not compatible with the UK’s obligations under the Good Friday agreement. Another diplomat described No 10’s account of the call as “quite shocking,” pointing to claims that Merkel had apparently said Germany could leave the EU “no problem” if it wanted. The diplomat said:

She would never have mentioned Germany leaving the EU. It’s quite gross and ridiculous. For me, it was obvious that it was designed for a domestic audience, but at the same time how could they attribute that to the chancellor?

Not everyone agrees with Tusk’s blazing Twitter diplomacy. Some diplomats prefer the quiet German approach. A German government spokesman declined to comment on the Merkel-Johnson call, noting:

As usual, we do not report from such confidential conversations.

Berlin has long argued it would go the last kilometre for a Brexit deal, but not by jeopardising peace in Northern Ireland or the integrity of the EU single market. Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, later took aim at the shadowy nature of these briefings, saying it reflected a prime minister who did not take responsibility for his No 10 operation. Labour MP Alison McGovern said it was as though “the future of our country is being briefed out as political gossip.” Behind the scenes, there was some disquiet among cabinet ministers about the briefings, especially the claim in the Spectator that the UK would withdraw security cooperation from any EU state that agrees to extend article 50. Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland secretary, even publicly tweeted that this idea was unacceptable. As the day’s political storm was abating, Johnson’s chief envoy, David Frost, was leaving the European commission after two days of technical talks. Ensconced in the commission’s star-shaped Berlaymont headquarters, EU officials have for days bombarded Frost and his team with questions, covering customs checks, exemptions for small and medium-sized businesses, agri-food regulations, timelines and transitions, the technical minutiae of a very political deal. Despite the furore, both sides insist talks have not broken down. But with the EU’s unofficial end-of-week deadline looming, they are going nowhere. In months and years to come, historians may look back on this day of febrile briefings as the moment an always elusive October deal slipped out of grasp.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal appears doomed as deadline looms
Heather Stewart, Daniel Boffey, Rowena Mason, Peter Walker, Groon, Oct 9 2019

Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan appeared to be all but dead on Tuesday night as the government admitted there was little prospect of a deal before Oct 31, following a day of furious recriminations. Johnson spoke to Leo Varadkar on the phone after a stormy 24 hours of briefing and counter-briefing, as concerns about his tactics were even raised in Johnson’s cabinet. In Brussels, a further extension that could be as long as next summer is now considered almost inevitable, despite Johnson’s continued insistence that the UK would leave on 31 October, with or without a deal. A blame game erupted on Tuesday morning as the cabinet gathered in Downing Street when an anonymous source briefed selected journalists about a private call between Johnson and Angela Merkel. The unnamed figure in No 10 claimed that Berlin’s insistence on keeping Northern Ireland in the EU customs union made a Brexit deal “essentially impossible, not just now but ever.” That message infuriated Donald Tusk, who tweeted directly at Johnson:

That sentiment was echoed by EC president Jean-Claude Juncker, who said “nobody would come out a winner” in a no-deal scenario. he said:

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.

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 the talks had stalled, even though David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, is still trying to keep discussions going in Brussels, saying:

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, though Brussels also rejects what it regards as a DUP veto over plans to keep Northern Ireland’s regulations in line with those of the EU. Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said that Johnson had told Varadkar on Tuesday evening that he still wanted a deal. Johnson and Varadkar have agreed to meet in the coming days, with both sides keen to avoid blame for no deal. However, the taoiseach said Ireland and the EU would not accept an agreement at “any cost,” telling RTÉ news:

There are some fundamental objectives that haven’t changed for the past three years and we need them guaranteed. I think it is going to be very difficult to secure an agreement by next week, quite frankly.

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 prime minister about anonymous briefings, he replied that ministers should listen to him instead. After the meeting was over, Smith issued a rebuke to the person – believed to be the prime minister’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings – who anonymously briefed the Spectator that the government would withhold security cooperation from EU countries who supported a Brexit delay. Smith tweeted:

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.

The statement triggered speculation that he could resign, but sources close to Smith insisted that 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 Johnson could try to circumvent the Benn act, which is aimed at forcing him to request a Brexit delay if he fails to strike a deal at next week’s European council meeting. The Benn act suggests an extension of Brexit talks until the end of Jan 2020 but there will be concern in EU capitals that this may not provide sufficient time for any potential fallout from a general election to play out. During angry exchanges in the House of Commons on Tuesday, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, accused Johnson of deliberately making a proposal he knew Brussels would reject. He responded to a defiant statement from Michael Gove about no-deal Brexit preparedness:

Talks with the EU are collapsing as we speak. The proposals that the government introduced last week were never going to work and instead of reacting to 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.

The European parliament president, David Sassoli, emerged downbeat from discussions with Johnson in London on Tuesday, telling reporters the UK government’s plans were “not an actual proposal.” Sassoli appeared exasperated and said that Johnson had refused to consider any new holistic proposals, instead repeating that the UK would leave on Oct 31, come what may. This lack of flexibility was “extremely sad,” he said. Asked if he thought Johnson was serious about a deal, Sassoli repeated that Johnson had given no new proposals and merely insisted on a 31 October departure. He said:

I think each and every one of us must reach the conclusions that they believe the most appropriate. I sincerely hope that there will be a wake-up call. Up to the very last minute, it will be possible for the EU and parliament to try and find a deal. MEPs are open to a Brexit extension.

In Brussels, diplomats are beginning to turn their minds to the length of any potential extension. A range of dates will be in play at the meeting of European leaders next week, but sources suggested the natural cut-off date would be next 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 precede a possible general election so as to force the Commons into accepting a deal. A senior EU diplomat said:

But politicians like to keep things off their plates for as long as possible, and so pushing it longer seems more realistic.

Brussels appears to have accepted that negotiations over a deal are effectively dead, following Downing Street’s extraordinary claims over the substance of the phone conversation between Merkel and Johnson. The alleged content of the Merkel-Johnson call was dismissed by senior politicians in Berlin as being “improbable.” MPs were sent home on Tuesday night as parliament is suspended for a few days in the run-up to next week’s Queen’s speech, which Johnson will use to set out an election-friendly list of domestic priorities. Most at Westminster expect Johnson to be forced into requesting a Brexit extension and to then trigger a general election, which could be held in November or early December. However, Johnson continues to insist that Britain will leave the EU on Oct 31, a message the government is promoting with a multimillion pound public information campaign urging businesses and the public to “get ready.”

Brexit talks in Brussels between EU and the UK come to a halt
Daniel Boffey, Groon, Oct 9 2019

BRUSSELS – Brexit talks have come to an abrupt halt in Brussels days after the British government demanded intensive negotiations on Johnson’s proposals. Sources on both sides confirmed that no meetings between the negotiating teams were scheduled. There are 22 days to go before the UK is due to leave the EU. Discussions between EU and UK boxtops had been held almost daily since the prime minister and the EC Pres Juncker met for lunch in Luxembourg in mid-September. The Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, had earlier this week called for the talks to intensify to try to secure a deal for leaders to sign off at an EU summit on Oct 17. But after a tumultuous Tuesday, during which unnamed Downing Street sources accused Angela Merkel of wielding a veto on Northern Ireland leaving the ECU, the talks appear to have hit a wall. EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Juncker will address the European parliament later on Wednesday to report on the state of play. Meanwhile, the Times reported on Wednesday that the EU could throw Johnson a last-minute, time-limited Northern Ireland-only backstop. Senior EU officials said such a proposal was not being discussed. A 700-word text message to a journalist at the Spectator from an unnamed Downing Street source on Monday, widely attributed to Johnson’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings, had predicted such an offer, and warned it would be rejected. Much of the focus is now on Johnson’s expected meeting with the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, on Thursday, with Barclay expected to meet Barnier for a working lunch in Brussels on the same day. Both sides are keen to avoid blame for what Johnson himself has warned would be a “failure of statecraft.” On Tuesday, Varadkar had told the Irish broadcaster RTE that he believed it would be “very difficult to secure an agreement by next week.” He said:

Essentially what the UK has done is repudiate the deal that we negotiated in good faith with PM May’s government over two years, and have sort of put half of that now back on the table and are saying that’s a concession, and of course it isn’t really.

Ireland hits back at No 10 accusation that it sabotaged Brexit deal
Rory Carroll, Groon, Oct 9 2019

The Irish government has hit back at “misinformation” and “pressure” from Britain as talks over a Brexit deal tottered towards collapse. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said on Tuesday that his administration was working “flat out” for a deal, despite accusations from Downing Street that Dublin had virtually sabotaged any chance of compromise. He told a press conference in the Irish capital:

No country wants a deal more than Ireland, but we will not strike a deal at any cost.

Boris Johnson spoke to Leo Varadkar on Tuesday evening. Downing Street said that “both sides strongly reiterated their desire to reach a Brexit deal” and hoped to meet in person later in the week. However when Coveney was asked earlier about the Downing Street briefings that accused Varadkar of derailing talks with inflexibility over the backstop, he said there had been a “lot of misinformation” and an attempt to pressure Ireland. Without naming Johnson, Dominic Cummings or any other figure in the British government, Coveney said there were “conflicting reports” from London and “a hard line” from those briefing the media. Coveney said that Ireland had welcomed Johnson’s Brexit proposals last week as a “step forward” while stressing that more work was needed to find a solution. He said:

There is an ongoing conversation in Brussels and we want to contribute to that in a constructive way … the taoiseach wants to find a compromise that works. But he is not willing to be boxed into a corner.

Dublin had been “upfront and honest” in highlighting problems with Downing Street’s plan, said Coveney. He said:

We can’t pretend we’re solving problems when we’re not.

The foreign minister, who doubles as deputy prime minister, said a blame game seemed to be eclipsing a search for solutions:

But this is too enormous an issue to be focusing on the politics of blame.

Coveney was due later to travel to Brussels to meet Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. EU and Irish officials have criticised Downing Street’s plan as unworkable for taking Northern Ireland out of the EU’s customs union and for giving the DUP a veto over trading arrangements. On Tuesday, a No 10 source accused Angela Merkel of making a deal impossible. Brussels responded by accusing Johnson of trying to play a “stupid blame game.” Despite Coveney’s insistence that a last-minute deal was still possible, there was a growing sense of dread in Dublin that no-deal Brexit was edging closer, heralding political instability in Northern Ireland and economic pain on both sides of the Irish border. Ireland’s finance minister, Paschal Donohoe, warned of turbulence while presenting the annual budget to the Dáil on Tuesday. he said:

This is a budget that has been developed in the shadow of Brexit.

The country has enjoyed strong growth and tax receipts, but Donohoe said the increasing likelihood of the UK exiting the EU without a deal posed a “pressing and immediate risk” to Ireland’s economy. The government deferred tax cuts and allocated €1.2bn, excluding EU funding, to cushion any shock. Donohoe earmarked €650m to support the agriculture, enterprise and tourism sectors, as well as regions that would be most affected by a no-deal Brexit. At sombre press conferences following the budget announcement, successive ministers detailed their departments’ no-deal Brexit contingency plans. One minister referred to the preparations as “triage.” The teetering Brexit talks have caused the gulf between political parties in Northern Ireland to widen. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, claimed that an Irish plot had been exposed. She said:

The prime minister’s proposals have flushed out Dublin’s real intentions to trap Northern Ireland in the EU customs union forever, where Dublin rather than the United Kingdom’s elected representatives would be in the driving seat.

Sinn Féin’s deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, accused the DUP and “other delusional Brexit cheerleaders” of exposing Northern Ireland to potentially catastrophic consequences. She said:

The north’s economy cannot withstand being excluded from the customs union and the single market, and that is the message we will be bringing loud and clear to the EU.

Johnson faces cabinet revolt over no-deal Brexit – media
Reuters, Oct 9 2019

LONDON – PM Johnson is facing a fresh rebellion in his cabinet, with a group of ministers poised to resign due to concerns that he is leading the country towards a no-deal Brexit, The Times reported on Wednesday. Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan, British Minister for Northern Ireland Julian Smith, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, Health Minister Matt Hancock and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox are all on a “resignation watch list,” according to The Times report. An unnamed cabinet minister cited by the newspaper said that a “very large number” of Conservative MPs will quit if it comes to a no-deal Brexit. The Times said that ministers had warned Johnson in a cabinet meeting about the “grave” risk of the return of direct rule in Northern Ireland and raised concerns about Dominic Cummings. The report quoted another cabinet minister as saying:

Cabinet will set the strategy, not unelected officials. If this is an attempt to do that, then it will fail.

While the Times did not specify how many Conservative MPs oppose a no-deal scenario, the FT reported early on Wednesday that at least 50 MPs from the party will revolt against a general election manifesto pledging to pursue a no-deal Brexit. Certain MPs from the party are considering running on a softer individual Brexit platform or even standing aside altogether as Tory candidates, the FT report added. The media reports come as the EU accused Britain of playing a “stupid blame game” over Brexit after a Downing Street source told Reuters a deal was essentially impossible because Angela Merkel had made unacceptable demands. With just over three weeks before the UK is due to leave the EU, the future of Brexit remains deeply uncertain as both London and Brussels position themselves to avoid blame for a delay or a disorderly no-deal Brexit.

Michel Barnier calls on Boris Johnson to rein in No 10 aides
Daniel Boffey, Jennifer Rankin, Groon, Oct 9 2019

Michel Barnier has called on Boris Johnson to rein in the Downing Street aides responsible for attacking the German chancellor this week as the EU doubled down on its rejection of the prime minister’s proposals. As talks between British and EU officials in Brussels came to a sudden halt, the EU’s chief negotiator told the European parliament:

We’re not really in a position where we’re able to find an agreement.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said he would not be as “diplomatic” as the bloc’s negotiator. he said:

I think that the proposal that Boris Johnson put forward one week ago was not serious at all. I call it a virtual proposal, not a real proposal.

Barnier had used his appearance in the parliament’s regular discussion on the objectives of next week’s EU leaders’ summit to calmly unpick each of the UK’s ideas for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit. After rejecting the imposition of a customs border on the island of Ireland, and the plans for Stormont to have a veto on Northern Ireland’s alignment with the EU’s single market in goods, Barnier said:

The proposal of the British government as things stand isn’t something we can accept. It replaces an operational, practical, legal solution (with) one that is simply a temporary solution.

But he also issued a thinly veiled reprimand to the prime minister over Downing Street’s aggressive tactics, including the anonymous briefing to journalists attributed to Dominic Cummings, about Angela Merkel’s recent phone call with the prime minister. Barnier said:

In this moment, where we are now, we will remain calm, we will remain constructive and we will be respectful of the UK and those who lead it. That is our approach, and we hope that with this attitude on both sides, we will be able to come to an agreement that works for everyone.

The European commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, told MEPs:

We are not accepting this blame game which started in London. We are not to be blamed but we will see in the next coming days how things will develop.

Verhofstadt most clearly expressed the anger felt by many at the briefings from Downing Street, in which it was claimed that the EU was “willing to torpedo the Good Friday agreement”. Merkel was said in the anonymous briefing to have also refused to allow Northern Ireland to leave the bloc’s customs union. Verhofstadt said:

It is a blame game. A blame game against everybody. A blame game against the Union, against Ireland, against Mrs Merkel, against the British judicial system, against Labour, against Lib Dems, even Mrs May. The only one who is not to be blamed is Mr Johnson, apparently. All those who are not playing his game are traitors, are collaborators, are surrenderers. The real traitor is he or she who risks bringing bringing disaster on his country, its economy and its citizens by pushing Britain out of the EU. That in my opinion is a traitor.

The Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, will meet Barnier for a working lunch in Brussels on Thursday. But the focus is now on Johnson’s planned meeting with Leo Varadkar on the same day. Varadkar said on Wednesday he was willing to examine how the people of Northern Ireland could give their consent to arrangements to avoid a hard border, but he went on:

Part of the difficulty at the moment though is it is the position of the UK government that Northern Ireland must leave the EU customs union and be part of the UK customs union, no matter what the people of Northern Ireland think. That’s their position at the moment, and that’s the one that’s of grave difficulty to us.

EU diplomats for the 27 other member states were briefed by the European commission on Wednesday morning that there had not been any change in the UK position in recent days to give hope that a deal could be signed off by leaders when they meet next Thursday. According to EU sources, the French representative in the meeting warned, in response, that “there can be no assumptions” about a free-trade deal with the UK after Brexit, given the British wish to remove all level playing field conditions, such as non-regression on environmental standards, from the withdrawal agreement. In a forceful intervention, the point was made that free-trade agreements were always decided on a case-by-case basis with the final result not automatically certain. Johnson’s government has promised a “best-in-class” deal with the EU and wants to end the UK’s close alignment with the bloc on standards regarding health, environment and workers’ rights.

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