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The blame game: Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy

Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel
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Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel
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Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel in Berlin in August

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Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel

Both sides pointing fingers as unofficial briefings from Downing Street rile EU leaders

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Wednesday, October 9, 2019 - 12:15pm

A series of unprecedented press briefings from Downing Street have led to accusations that Boris Johnson is playing a “Brexit blame game”.

EU leaders complained that the PM is now longer focused on solving the Irish border problem and instead is intent on pointing fingers for the failure to agree a withdrawal deal.

What did the briefings say?

A 700-word message was sent via text to The Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth from a “contact in No. 10” and published earlier this week.

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The unnamed source laid the blame on Leo Varadkar, claiming that the Irish leader “doesn’t want to negotiate” and that he was gambling on the UK holding a second referendum.

“If this deal dies in the next few days, then it won’t be revived,” said the text. “We will also make clear that this government will not negotiate further so any delay would be totally pointless.”

The message added that “we’ll either leave with no deal on 31 October or there will be an election and then we will leave with no deal”, as the Government is confident that “over half of the public will agree with us” rather than with a Parliament “as popular as the clap”.

The “explosive missive” bore “all the hallmarks” of Johnson’s chief stategist Dominic Cummings, reports The Telegraph.

Another unofficial briefing from No. 10 came yesterday after Johnson spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the phone. The latest message claimed a Brexit deal was “essentially impossible” because Merkel insisted that Northern Ireland must remain in a customs union with the EU.

What was the response?

European diplomats questioned whether the Merkel summation was true, with one noting that “it doesn’t sound like something she would say”. The German leader has remained silent on what happened during the call.

EU Council President Donald Tusk tweeted: “Boris 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?”

Varadkar’s deputy, Simon Coveney, said it was “hard to disagree” with Tusk, adding: “We remain open to finalise a fair Brexit deal but need a UK Govt willing to work with EU to get it done.”

And the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier later said: “Donald Tusk was reflecting the level of frustration and concern among member states that the focus has shifted to the blame game rather than trying to solve this problem.”

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Officials across the Channel believe that the briefing to the Spectator was not really aimed at them but rather for the UK electorate, says The Guardian.

“It is increasingly the view in Brussels that the legal text tabled by Johnson on the Irish border was written for rejection, and this text appears to prove it. It is time for Johnson to shout betrayal, and hope the voters believe him,” concludes the newspaper.

Could Boris be outbluffed?

According to The Times, the EU might be prepared to allow Northern Ireland to leave a new Irish backstop after a set number of years.

However, Iain Duncan Smith, former Conservative leader, said the offer looked “tokenistic” and was “about shifting blame to Boris Johnson”.

What happens next?

The EU looks set to make its final position clear on Johnson’s Brexit proposals by the end of this week.

Parliament will then meet on 19 October “after a crunch EU summit - seen as the last chance for the UK and EU to agree a deal ahead of 31 October deadline”, says the BBC.

If the EU has agreed to a deal, MPs will have the chance to vote on it during the special Saturday sitting. If there is no deal on the table, a range of other options will be explored.

Both Johnson and the opposition will be poised to try to gain control of the session in order to “map out the next steps”, in what “will be a huge day”, says the BBC’s Norman Smith.

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