The Brexit negotiations dramatically went up in flames today as the EU accused Boris Johnson of a ‘stupid blame game’ after he said the bloc had made a deal ‘impossible’.
An extraordinary public slanging match broke out after the PM condemned a demand from Angela Merkel for Northern Ireland to stay in the customs union ‘forever’.
In a pivotal moment drawing battle lines for an election within weeks, Mr Johnson and the German Chancellor clashed brutally in an early morning phone call.
No10 sources said Mrs Merkel told the premier during the 30-minute showdown that the province must remain within the EU’s customs union indefinitely.
But Mr Johnson retorted that her position meant a deal was ‘essentially impossible, not just now but ever’.
A Downing Street source said the call – which effectively reads the last rites on hopes for an agreement before next week’s EU summit – was a ‘clarifying moment’. Mr Johnson now appears certain to boycott the gathering, heralding another low in relations.
‘If this represents a new established position then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever,’ the No10 source said. ‘It also made clear that they are willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement.’
In response, EU council president Donald Tusk ranted on Twitter that the PM was risking the ‘security and interests of our people’ by refusing to make concessions.
The PM’s spokesman swiped back that he had ‘chosen to conduct these talks by personal telephone conversations with EU leaders, so I will refrain from commenting on social media’.
Mr Johnson met his Cabinet for crisis talks after the conversation this morning, as ministers stepped up their war footing to go to the country.
The meltdown with the EU appears to have been carefully choreographed, with Brexit minister Michael Gove unveiling a ‘preparedness’ paper on No Deal shortly after the Merkel bust-up emerged.
Parliament is also due to prorogue tonight ahead of the Queen’s Speech – stripping Remainer MPs of their ability to move against the PM.
Downing Street had already painted a grim picture of the consequences of rejecting the UK’s ‘fair and reasonable’ blueprint.
One source – claimed to be maverick strategist Dominic Cummings – explosively claimed overnight that the government will make clear that any EU country supporting a delay to the October 31 Brexit deadline would be engaging in ‘hostile interference’ in British politics.
Boris Johnson (pictured visiting a hospital in Watford yesterday) is holding a crisis meeting as aides admit the Brexit talks are set to break down dramatically this week
In a crunch moment for negotiations, the PM and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured right in Berlin today) clashed brutally in an early morning phone call. Donald Tusk (left) then accused Mr Johnson of a ‘stupid blame game’
EU council president Donald Tusk ranted on Twitter that the PM was risking the ‘security and interests of our people’ by refusing to make concessions
Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liz Truss were among the ministers gathering in Downing Street today
Former Cabinet minister Amber Rudd claimed maverick No10 aide Dominic Cummings (pictured in Downing Street last week) was behind the explosive briefing
Any hope of cooperation will be ‘in the toilet’ and the Tories will end all negotiations to fight an election, switching to a policy of leaving the EU immediately with No Deal.
The Tories will win because Parliament and Remainer MPs are ‘as popular as the Clap’.
However, tensions in the Cabinet over the hardline approach were exposed today with Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith saying the threat from the No10 source to withdraw security cooperation was ‘unacceptable’.
Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan is also thought to have voiced concerns during the meeting this morning.
As the situation threatened to spiral out of control, DUP leader Arlene Foster raged: ‘The comments from the German Chancellor to the Prime Minister that Northern Ireland must remain in the EU Customs Union forever now reveal the real objective of Dublin and the European Union.
What happens next in the Brexit crisis?
Here is how the coming weeks could pan out:
Today: Parliament prorogues at the close of business. There are rumours Boris Johnson could make a statement after talks effectively collapsed.
October 14: Parliament is due to return for the Queen’s Speech.
October 17-18: A crunch EU summit in Brussels, but Mr Johnson now seems certain to boycott the event in protest at the bloc’s intransigence.
October 19: If there is no Brexit deal by this date Remainer legislation obliges the PM to beg the EU for an extension to avoid No Deal.
Jeremy Corbyn has said that he will only let Mr Johnson trigger an election after an extension has been secured.
If there is a deal, it will start being rushed through Parliament immediately.
October 31: The current deadline for the UK to leave the EU.
November/December: An election looks inevitable.
‘For the United Kingdom to be asked to leave a part of its sovereign territory in a foreign organisation of which the UK would no longer be a part and over which we would have no say whatsoever is beyond crazy. No UK Government could ever concede such a surrender.
‘The EU is not interested in a negotiated outcome at this time. Their position is the UK can only leave with a deal if it agrees a binding piece of international law permanently tying either the whole country or a part of it to the EU’s legal order over which it has no control.
‘The true purpose of the ‘backstop’ is now in the open for an to see. Those who eagerly supported the backstop as the best of both worlds can now see the error of that assessment. It was neither temporary nor an insurance policy.’
Nigel Farage tweeted: ‘The EU were never going to negotiate in good faith. We simply have to leave with a clean break.’
But shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said the government was trying to ‘sabotage’ the talks.
‘This is yet another cynical attempt by No 10 to sabotage the negotiations,’ he said.
‘Boris Johnson will never take responsibility for his own failure to put forward a credible deal. His strategy from day one has been for a no-deal Brexit.
‘It is now more important than ever that parliament unites to prevent this reckless government crashing us out of the EU at the end of the month.’
While technical talks between officials continued yesterday, EU leaders have so far refused to hold face-to-face talks with Mr Johnson on his plan for replacing the controversial Irish backstop.
The PM said yesterday that Brussels had been presented with ‘a big step forward, big advance, big compromise by the UK Government’, but complained the EU was not engaging with the details.
And in an incendiary briefing overnight a No10 source told the Spectator: ‘They think now that if there is another delay we will keep coming back with new proposals.
‘This won’t happen. We’ll either leave with No Deal on 31 October or there will be an election and then we will leave with No Deal.’
Voters ‘are more likely to blame Remainer MPs than Boris Johnson if Brexit is delayed’
A survey conducted by ComRes shows that if the UK’s departure date is pushed back beyond October 31 then the PM will be at least partially blamed for the extension by just over half of voters.
But crucially for the PM the numbers show that voters will blame other groups far more than they will the premier if he is unable to stick to his ‘do or die’ Brexit pledge.
The statistics represent a boost for Mr Johnson and Downing Street because they come as the chances of a Brexit deal appear to be shrinking while the possibility of an extension past Halloween increases.
Number 10 is adamant that the UK will leave the EU with or without a deal but the government has also conceded that it will have to comply with the so-called Benn Act.
That anti-No Deal law states that the PM must ask the EU for a delay if the two sides have not struck an accord in the run up to the October 31 deadline.
However, Downing Street has made clear that while it will ask for a delay in such circumstances it will also make plain to the EU that it does not want an extension.
Should a delay be agreed, the ComRes poll for The Telegraph suggests Mr Johnson would have to shoulder some of the blame.
But he is likely to be heartened by the fact other groups would be blamed more than he would.
The brutal assault – which former Cabinet minister Amber Rudd claimed came from Mr Cummings – emerged after Mr Johnson’s proposals hit a huge roadblock.
EU politicians have branded them a ‘joke’ and Emmanuel Macron set a deadline of Friday for the UK to make more concessions.
Upping the ante today, Mr Tusk tweeted directly at Mr Johnson, saying: ‘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)?’
Irish deputy PM Simon Coveney also waded into the row, saying: ‘Hard to disagree – reflects the frustration across EU and the enormity of what’s at stake for us all. We remain open to finalize a fair Brexit deal but need a UK Govt willing to work with EU to get it done.’
Asked if the PM was playing a ‘blame game’, the PM’s spokesman shot back: ‘Absolutely not. It is not us talking in that language.’
The briefing around the call caused anger in some circles, with claims it misrepresented Mrs Merkel’s typically diplomatic approach.
But government sources flatly denied the exchanges had been ‘made up’.
It is understood Mr Johnson initially asked for the German Chancellor’s ‘help’ with Michel Barnier because he was ‘not negotiating’ with the UK.
Mrs Merkel ‘let the cat out of the bag’ by making clear that Northern Ireland in the customs union was a red line, at which point Mr Johnson insisted that was ‘not going to be accepted’.
The source said Mrs Merkel ‘did not mean it in an aggressive way’, but her words had put the EU’s stance into sharp focus.
Ahead of the clashes, Mr Johnson had said yesterday: ‘What we’re saying to our friends is, this is a very generous, fair and reasonable offer we’ve made.
‘What we’d like to hear from you now is what your thoughts are. And if you have issues with any of the proposals that we’ve come up with, then let’s get into the detail and discuss them.
‘It’s time for us to get together and really thrash this thing out.’
However, EU officials responded last night by leaking to The Guardian a rejection of the UK’s offer.
The ‘confidential’ report said the Prime Minister’s plan to take Northern Ireland out of the customs union would cause ‘major disruption to the all-Ireland economy’.
And it said Brussels did not accept that the people of Northern Ireland should be asked to consent to the idea of the province remaining aligned to EU rules after Brexit.
The report is said to have been delivered last Friday to Mr Johnson’s chief EU adviser David Frost.
A UK official responded: ‘Rather than writing documents in order to leak them, the EU’s time would be better spent on engaging with our sensible and fair proposals, so the UK can leave with a deal when we exit the EU on October 31.’
The senior No10 source told The Spectator Irish PM Leo Varadkar had reneged on promises to make concessions alongside the UK.
Mr Varadkar ‘said if we moved on manufactured goods then he would also move but instead he just attacked us publicly’.
The source said they would make it clear in public and in private that the interference is not welcome, and any attempt to delay is pointless as Britain will leave regardless on 31 October.
Irish PM Leo Varadkar and EU negotiator Michel Barnier have given short shrift to the UK’s Brexit blueprint
A survey conducted by ComRes showed 83 per cent of voters would blame Parliament if Brexit is delayed beyond October 31
Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom and housing minister Esther McVey were at the Cabinet meeting in No10 today
They suggested the government has still not given up on trying to get round the Benn Act, but insisted: ‘We will make clear privately and publicly that countries which oppose delay will go to the front of the queue for future cooperation…
‘Supporting the delay will be seen by this government as hostile interference in domestic politics, and over half of the public will agree with us.’
Why is the EU’s Northern Ireland customs union demand so problematic?
Angela Merkel reportedly told Boris Johnson this morning that there could only be a Brexit deal if the UK agreed that Northern Ireland will permanently stay in the EU’s customs union.
Ms Merkel apparently said that if Britain could not agree to that then a deal was ‘overwhelmingly unlikely’.
Meanwhile, a Number 10 source said that if that was the EU’s negotiating red line then a deal is ‘essentially impossible’.
The reason the customs demand is so significant, and potentially deal-wrecking, is that it would effectively mean Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK forever.
Under the plan put forward by Mr Johnson, Northern Ireland would stay in the EU’s single market for goods but would leave the customs union at the same time as the rest of Britain.
That would enable the province to benefit from any future UK trade deals.
If it was kept in the customs union while the rest of the UK left, then it would be excluded from those trade deals.
As a result, critics would argue that keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union would leave it out in the cold and isolated – technically still a part of the UK but on a very different path.
That is why Mr Johnson – or any other UK PM – would struggle to agree to such a proposal.
It would also prompt fury from Unionist politicians who are adamant that Ulster must not be treated differently to the rest of the UK.
Labour’s Brexit plan would see the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU and so the question of treating Northern Ireland differently would not arise.
Defence and security cooperation could be affected if the European Union attempted to keep Britain in against its wishes.
The source added: ‘Those who supported delay will face the inevitable consequences of being seen to interfere in domestic politics in a deeply unpopular way.’
Spelling out that the Tories will need to harden up their Brexit stance even further to outflank Nigel Farage – who has been demanding a clean break – the source said: ‘To marginalise the Brexit Party, we will have to fight the election on the basis of ‘No more delays, get Brexit done immediately”.’
In a vicious swipe at Remainer MPs, they added: ‘Those who pushed the Benn Act intended to sabotage a deal and they’ve probably succeeded.
‘So the main effect of it will probably be to help us win an election by uniting the leave vote and then a no-deal Brexit. History is full of such ironies and tragedies.’
Asked if the source quote came from Mr Cummings, Ms Rudd told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think Dominic Cummings, yes, because otherwise it would have been heavily denied and heads would have rolled.
‘So clearly it’s come from them, it’s in their style.
‘It reveals that there doesn’t appear to be an actual plan at all. Instead, what they’re doing is angrily, apparently, begging the EU not to support a delay which will be required because of the position that Parliament has taken.’
With both sides anxious to avoid the blame for a breakdown in talks, Government sources said officials were drawing up their own report setting out concessions Mr Johnson had made after the EU’s previous demands.
These include asking Northern Ireland to remain in the single market for goods after Brexit to reduce the need for border checks.
EU diplomats suggested leaders could use the summit to instead discuss another Brexit extension, despite the fact Mr Johnson has ruled out asking for one.
Downing Street yesterday insisted it had not abandoned hopes of a last-minute breakthrough, with Mr Johnson speaking by phone with the leaders of Sweden, Denmark and Poland.
The PM’s official spokesman said: ‘We are ready to have discussions at pace, but for that to happen the EU needs to engage.’ But Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok yesterday said the UK needed to provide ‘more realism and reality’.
But one EU official said the most that could be offered with the time left would be reverting to a tweaked ‘off-the-shelf’ model, such as the Northern Ireland-only backstop.
This is a red line for Mr Johnson as it would involve Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union.
What is Boris Johnson’s five-point plan to scrap the Irish backstop?
Northern Ireland would leave the Customs’ Union with the rest of the UK but stay in the single market.
This would constitute an ‘all island regulatory zone’ that covers trade of all goods. It would mean no checks between the two nations, because Northern Ireland would still have to follow EU rules.
Goods from Britain to Northern Ireland would effectively be managed by a border in the Irish Sea, with checks only in that direction, not the reverse.
The ‘all island regulatory zone’ will have to be approved by the people of Northern Ireland. This means the Northern Ireland Assembly has the right to veto the zone and could hold a referendum on the matter.
Customs checks would have to be put in place on trade between Northern and the Republic of Ireland. Most checks would be made using technology, but some would still have to be physical.
Cash for Northern Ireland
A promise of a ‘new deal for Northern Ireland’ means ministers putting money aside for Belfast and Dublin to help aide economic development and ensure new measures work.
Keeping to the Good Friday agreement
Freedom of movement between two countries will remain. New deal would confirm commitment to collobaration between UK and Ireland.