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The Brexit blame game: how frantic 24 hours put Ireland and Germany in the line of fire over collapsing talks 

A number 10 memo was described as 'trying to frame a villain'
A number 10 memo was described as 'trying to frame a villain' Credit: Telegraph

With Brexit timed for Hallowe'en, the days leading up to the UK’s planned exit from the EU were always expected to get tricky.

But as Tuesday’s incendiary Number 10 memo appeared to signal the end for Britain’s already tortured negotiations with Brussels, the blame game for what was fast emerging as a spectacular failure of statecraft began in earnest.  

Bearing all the hallmarks of Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief strategist, the explosive missive - sent to the Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth overnight - pointed the finger at Leo Varadkar’s “gamble on a second referendum”. Which must have made last night’s 40-minute phone call between Boris Johnson and the Irish Taoiseach a little awkward to say the very least. 

In a stark warning to Dublin and Brussels, the statement added: “If this deal dies in the next few days, then it won’t be revived... We will also make clear that this government will not negotiate further so any delay would be totally pointless.”

The Downing Street salvo also made clear that the Conservatives would fight an election on “the basis of ‘no more delays, get Brexit done immediately’” in a bid to out flank Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

“We’ll either leave with no deal on 31 October or there will be an election and then we will leave with no deal,” it said, confident that “over half of the public will agree with us” rather than colluding with a parliament “as popular as the clap”.

Such an unprecedented briefing - unusually published verbatim - naturally aroused suspicions across the Channel where an EU diplomat remarked: “The whole message is a message for domestic consumption not on behalf of a government that wants to do a deal.” 

Another EU source said the statement “looked like they were trying to frame a villain". 

A Tory MP recently told the Prime Minister he risked becoming a popular November 5 effigy if he delivered a no-deal Brexit but on Tuesday it seemed Downing Street was looking for a different fall guy to throw on the bonfire. 

Angela Merkel was next in the line of fire. 

Following what was described as a “frank exchange” between Mr Johnson and the German Chancellor, a Downing Street source said a Brexit deal was “essentially impossible” because of Merkel’s insistence that Northern Ireland must remain in a customs union with the EU - seemingly a goalpost shift from the all-Ireland backstop that had previously been discussed. 

Again EU diplomats were keen to cast doubt on Number 10’s recollection of events. “It doesn’t sound like something she would say,” said one, as a former member of Theresa May’s Cabinet described Number 10’s account of the conversation as "about as convincing as Dick Van Dyke's cockney accent".

Channelling the former Prime Minister, a spokesman for the European Commission insisted “nothing had changed”, adding: “We are working for a deal". Since technical talks were due to continue, she could not see "how the talks could have broken down". 

"Under no circumstances will we accept that the EU wants to do harm to the Good Friday Agreement," they said - seeking to distance themselves from any suggestion they might be held responsible for a no-deal outcome. “The purpose of our work is to protect it in all its dimensions.” 

Unhelpfully for the EU, a German Government official refused to comment further, saying: “We do not report from such confidential conversations". 

Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a "frank exchange"  Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

By the time Mr Johnson’s EU sherpa David Frost had arrived for talks with European Commission officials at noon, a UK spokesman insisted negotiations on the protocol and the political declaration would continue apace.

“These talks are reaching a critical point. The UK has moved a long way, and now we need to see movement from the EU side. Today’s technical discussions are continuing to find a resolution ahead of the European Council.”

Yet it soon became clear that EU Council president Donald Tusk was far from readying himself to roll out the red carpet for the Prime Minister at next week’s crunch summit. 

In a characteristically combative tweet, he railed: “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?”

While the meaning would not have been lost on classics scholar Mr Johnson, "quo vadis" then began trending on Twitter. Commonly translated as "Where are you marching?", the Latin phrase dates back to the apocryphal Acts of Saint Peter.

Sources close to Tusk later suggested that his biblical tweet was directed more at Mr Cummings than his boss. It is perhaps worth noting that the former Prime Minister of Poland is famed in Brussels for having control of his own mobile, often surprising staff with his frank and sometimes undiplomatic online outbursts. He later tweeted a picture of himself meeting Merkel in Berlin, in a bid to reinforce the unity of the EU27. 

Also keen to fall behind his Brussels brethren, Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney retweeted Tusk, commenting: “Hard to disagree - reflects the frustration across EU and the enormity of what’s at stake for us all. We remain open to finalise a fair #Brexit deal but need a UK Govt willing to work with EU to get it done.”

It came with the revelation that growth in Ireland’s economy was forecast to decelerate from 5.5 per cent this year to 0.7 per cent next year in the event of a hard Brexit.

Coveney, who met with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Tuesday night 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,” before himself trying to shift the blame with the words: “A no-deal will never be Ireland’s choice. It will never be the choice of the EU.”

Similarly, German sources stressed that Merkel would work until the “last moment” to get a deal, pointing out that it was no secret the UK’s customs proposals were problematic for the EU.

By 2pm, Norbert Rottgen, the head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, was happily telling Die Welt, the German daily broadsheet, that Mr Johnson was “stuck in a Brexit hardliners’ trap with no room for manoeuvre”.

Credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Support for Mr Johnson came in the form of DUP leader ‘Come On’ Arlene Foster, the Government’s confidence and supply partner, who said Merkel's comments revealed the “real objective of Dublin and the EU” to keep Northern Ireland locked in the EU customs union forever. “We will not accept any such ultimatum or outcome,” she warned. 

Describing the Irish backstop as “beyond crazy”, the punchy statement, posted on the DUP’s Twitter feed, appeared to suggest that the Unionists, like their Tory partners, were inching ever closer to a no-deal.

Yet with both Britain and Ireland briefing that both sides still strongly desired a deal after the 40-minute pow wow, a day that began with guns at dawn appeared to end with a ceasefire of sorts. Until EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker decided to gatecrash the peace process by telling France's Les Echos that any blame for a no deal would lie "in the British camp", adding: "A Brexit without an agreement would lead to a collapse of the United Kingdom." With Bonfire Night fast approaching, expect more fireworks.