From the sound of Downing Street’s account of Boris Johnson’s fateful phone call with Angela Merkel yesterday, his charms do not have the same effect on her that they did on pole-dancing American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri.
The German Chancellor gave him, or more specifically his Brexit proposals, the diplomatic cold shoulder.
Her blunt statement that any chance of a deal was ‘overwhelmingly unlikely’ appeared to kill off dwindling hopes of a breakthrough in talks between the Government and Brussels.
By convention, officials play down any disagreement in private conversations between their political masters. For example, in their lexicon of euphemisms, raging rows are described as ‘constructive debates’.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) gave Boris Johnson (left), or more specifically his Brexit proposals, the diplomatic cold shoulder, writes SIMON WALTERS
Yet officials in No 10 went out of their way to do the opposite yesterday. Gone was any attempt to gloss over differences. They ramped up the rhetoric by claiming Merkel’s comments meant ‘a deal is essentially impossible not just now… but ever’.
The provocative nature of the briefing, though, paled into insignificance compared to a rant, made public 12 hours earlier, by a No 10 insider who swore death and destruction to anyone who tried to stop the UK cutting ties with Brussels on October 31.
The Downing Street ‘source’ quoted by The Spectator bore the unmistakably contemptuous and crude tone of Johnson’s de facto chief of staff Dominic Cummings.
The ‘source’ made a series of extra-ordinary, lurid claims, including that it was a ‘delusion’ to think Merkel would help Britain; warning that if the talks failed, any prospect of the UK ‘sincerely co-operating’ with the EU ‘will be in the toilet’; rounding on MPs plotting to stop Brexit by highlighting their precarious standing in a Parliament ‘as popular as the clap’; and accusing Irish PM Leo Varadkar of ratting on a promise to make concessions in return for a similar move by Johnson.
Thankfully, Johnson was more dignified when he spoke to Merkel. But his message was essentially the same.
He told her that talks on his Brexit proposals were ‘close to breaking down’, he was not convinced ‘there was any desire for negotiation’ from Brussels and that European leaders holding out in expectation of Brexit being reversed by a second referendum were barking up the wrong tree.
With just a week to go before the EU summit – the last opportunity to thrash out a deal – it seems both sides have given up any hope of agreement.
We are entering the end-game of a complex – yet fruitless – series of negotiations that began more than six years ago when David Cameron set out Britain’s problems with the EU and pledged to hold an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership.
Predictably, EU president Donald Tusk, who once spoke of a ‘special place in hell’ for ‘those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan’, led the EU’s counter-attack on Johnson. Tusk accused him of ‘playing a stupid blame game’ – a charge repeated by Labour’s Brexit spokesman and wannabe leader Keir Starmer. Officially, the Prime Minister is clinging to his pledge that if he cannot get a deal he will take the UK out of the EU on October 31 without one. Unofficially, his allies admit the chances are very slim. His hands are tied by the Benn Act, which stipulates that he must ask Parliament’s permission on any Brexit deal. He also faces a ‘rebel alliance’ of Labour, Lib Dems, Scots Nats and a former Tory MPs who lost the party whip for opposing No Deal.
Politically, economically, constitutionally and socially, the long-term future of Britain will be decided in the coming weeks.
The Downing Street ‘source’ quoted by The Spectator bore the unmistakably contemptuous and crude tone of Johnson’s de facto chief of staff Dominic Cummings, writes SIMON WALTERS
On a personal level, Johnson’s credibility is at stake. Above all, how would the public react if he failed to deliver on his promise that Britain will leave the EU on October 31, ‘do or die’?
Nearly everyone in Westminster agrees this would mean a general election in November is inevitable. Even charismatic Johnson may struggle to sweet-talk people into blaming everyone else – Parliament, Brussels and the judges – rather than himself.
The opinion polls give him a decent lead over Labour. But an election held after Johnson had so dramatically failed would play into the hands of both Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage.
Indeed, I believe the threat to the Tories would be greater from the latter and his Brexit Party. They will accuse the Government of betraying the 17.4 million who voted Leave, dishonouring democracy by failing to implement the referendum result and sacrificing the country’s interests because of Conservative Party infighting. They will argue that we have no choice but to leave the EU without a deal.
And therein lies Johnson’s next big dilemma. To win an election he must get the support of disaffected pro-Leave Tories who were among those who voted the Brexit Party into first place in this year’s Euro election.
As the Downing Street ‘source’ made clear yesterday, hardliners surrounding Johnson want him to campaign on an unequivocal No Deal manifesto.
Wisely, former Tory leader William Hague articulated the horror felt by mainstream Eurosceptic Tories at such a scorched-earth approach. He said: ‘A hardline election message, shorn of any hope of compromise, will leave many traditional but moderate Tories with their pencils hovering over the Lib Dem box on polling day.’
Ironically, although polar opposites in style and language, moderate Hague and manic Cummings want the same thing: A Brexit deal by October 31.
And it is just possible that there is one tiny, common ray of hope in the utterances from both Hague and the ‘source’ who briefed The Spectator.
It is Hague’s suggestion that the only chance of getting a deal in the few days left is to put a time limit on the controversial Northern Ireland backstop. This, he concedes, would ‘involve a climbdown’ by Johnson, Varadkar and Brussels but, he insists it is the best solution for all three.
At the same time, the ‘source’ forecast that Brussels will make a last-minute offer of a time-limited backstop but predicted that Johnson would reject it, adding: ‘That will probably be the end.’ This could explain Downing Street’s angry reaction to Merkel’s comments to the PM. She reportedly said Northern Ireland would have to stay in the customs union ‘for ever’, although Berlin disputed No 10’s version of the conversation.
More pragmatic voices close to Johnson would urge the PM to grab any olive branch with both hands as the best way to pull himself out of his – and Europe’s – Brexit nightmare.