Leaked comments by Boris Johnson expose cabinet divisions

Foreign secretary scorns Philip Hammond as victim of Project Fear in secret recording

Deep divisions over Brexit in Theresa May’s warring cabinet were laid bare once again last night as Boris Johnson was captured in a secret recording criticising the Treasury as the “heart of remain”.

Johnson made clear his dissatisfaction with the chancellor and warned of a Brexit “meltdown” in remarks at a private dinner with Conservative donors.

The foreign secretary said May was “going to go into a phase where we are much more combative with Brussels”. He added: “You’ve got to face the fact there may now be a meltdown. OK? I don’t want anybody to panic during the meltdown. No panic. Pro bono publico, no bloody panic. It’s going to be all right in the end.”

He dismissed the cautious approach of Philip Hammond’s Treasury, which he said had focused on “mumbo jumbo” predictions about short-term disruption, instead of the potential gains from leaving the EU.

“That fear of short-term disruption has become so huge in people’s minds that it’s turning them all wet,” he said. “Project Fear is really working on them.”

Britain’s top diplomat also told the select audience at a dinner for Thatcherite group Conservative Way Forward, that Britain should take a leaf out of Donald Trump’s book when it came to Brexit.

Johnson said he had become “increasingly admiring of Donald Trump” and has become “convinced that there is method in his madness”.

“Imagine Trump doing Brexit,” Johnson said, according to the recording leaked to BuzzFeed news and the Times. “He’d go in bloody hard … There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”

A friend of Johnson said: “This was a private dinner under Chatham House rules so it is sad and very disappointing that it has been covertly recorded and distributed to the media.”

Earlier, both camps in cabinet claimed victory after a day of drama in Westminster, as the prime minister finally published the UK’s plan for a customs backstop to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland.

The contentious proposal was agreed after two face-to-face confrontations between the prime minister and her disgruntled Brexit secretary, David Davis, who would only sign it off after she inserted a specific end date.

As expected, the backstop as drafted would keep the whole of the UK – and not just Northern Ireland – inside key aspects of the customs union, until a permanent arrangement can be put in place that avoids cumbersome border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Britain would continue to apply the EU’s common external tariff; but would demand the right to negotiate and sign new trade deals, “and implement those elements that do not affect the functioning of the temporary customs arrangement”.

Speaking to reporters on the plane en route to Canada, the prime minister insisted: “The point about the backstop is that it may never be used. It only comes in if the agreed end state customs arrangement has not been been brought into place by January 2021.”

But she sidestepped the question of whether she could offer a “cast iron guarantee” that the backstop would not remain in place after December 2021.

As well as tense talks with Davis, May also met Liam Fox and Johnson, the other two most prominent leavers in her cabinet, as she sought to find wording they would agree to.

May’s spokeswoman was forced to deny claims that Davis had come close to walking out. “No one threatened to resign,” she said.

Johnson’s views were laid bare in the secret recording in which he criticised the significance the Irish border issue has taken on in the negotiations with Brussels.

“It’s so small and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly, it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way. We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly,” he said.

The backstop text, which was presented to Brussels at the same time as it was published in London, included a final clause – insisted on by Davis – saying the backstop “will be only in place until the future customs arrangement can be introduced”.

It adds: “The UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest. There are a range of options for how a time limit could be delivered, which the UK will propose and discuss with the EU.”

Allies of Davis said the time limit had only been added at his request – and he had also obtained assurances from May about pressing ahead with the planned Brexit white paper.

But remain-leaning cabinet ministers believe the clause is a cosmetic concession, which would have no legal force.

“It’s a sentence added for political expediency,” said one Whitehall source, adding that the EU could easily sign up to it. “They operate in the legal sphere.”

Asked whether it was plausible the deadline would be met, the source added: “It’s taken us seven years to put 150,000 people on universal credit.”

In a letter to all her MPs, May warned them of more compromises to come, saying they represented a choice between “the unacceptable” and “the unpalatable”.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said he welcomed publication of the UK proposal, but did not give a verdict on whether it would be accepted.

“We will examine it with three questions,” he wrote on Twitter. “Is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the SM/CU [single-market and customs union]? Is it an all-weather backstop.”

His mention of the single market pointed to the fact – acknowledged by ministers – that the customs issues are only a partial solution to the challenge of avoiding a hard border, and the UK is also likely to have to agree to align closely with EU regulations.

Brexit select committee chair, Hilary Benn, said:

“This is a recognition of blunt reality. But this backstop contains no proposal on regulatory standards, which will also be essential to keep an open border in Northern Ireland. Half a backstop is therefore unlikely to be sufficient to make progress possible at the June European council.”

Ireland’s deputy prime minister warned that “a great deal of work remains to be done” on the Irish border question and it “remains vital that a legally binding backstop is agreed” to ensure a hard border is avoided “in all circumstances”.

Simon Coveney said the European commission had made it clear it needed to see operational wording on the backstop solution for Ireland in time for the council summit on 28 June.


Contributors

Heather Stewart, Daniel Boffey, Rajeev Syal and Lisa O'Carroll

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