Boris Johnson’s take on Brexit Border not accurate, says Taoiseach

British foreign secretary warns of Brexit ‘meltdown’ and derides Border ‘folly’

UK chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond, speaking at a conference in Berlin, was asked about comments by Johnson that US President Donald Trump 'might get somewhere' with Brexit negotiations.

 

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s attempt to play down the significance of concerns about the Border in Brexit talks has been criticised by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

In apparently unguarded comments at a private dinner, Mr Johnson claimed the issue had been blown out of proportion.

“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,” he said.

“We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly.”

Mr Varadkar said the Foreign Secretary’s assessment was not accurate.

“When I want to know what the view of the British government is, I listen to the prime minister,” Mr Varadkar said.

He also said the UK Government’s proposals on a backstop position to avoid a hard border in Ireland “fall short” of what the EU required.

Mr Varadkar said the concept of a deadline or time-limit on the customs arrangement was not acceptable, insisting any fall-back position to enable free movement over the frontier should only expire at such time that a broader trading deal between the EU and UK is struck.

“Just putting off a hard border for three years or four years or six years or 20 years isn’t enough — it has to be permanent,” Mr Varadkar said during a visit to the headquarters of the Orange Order in Belfast.

In Brussels, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Barnier said he would not comment on what Mr Johnson said, but described what the British foreign secretary said as “always very stimulating”.

British prime minister Theresa May was put under fresh pressure from within her Cabinet after Mr Johnson warned of a Brexit “meltdown” and called for “guts” in exit talks.

Mr Johnson said there was a risk Brexit “will not be the one we want” and would keep Britain “locked in orbit” around the EU.

At the gathering of Conservative Way Forward, a Thatcherite campaign group, he branded the British Treasury the “heart of Remain” and claimed negotiations were approaching a “moment of truth”.

In comments captured in a recording obtained by BuzzFeed News, he said the Prime Minister 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 alright in the end.”

Mr Johnson suggested UK chancellor Philip Hammond’s department was “basically the heart of Remain” and said the UK could end up “in the customs union and to a large extent still in the single market”.

He was speaking to around 20 people dining in a private room after a reception at London’s Institute of Directors on Wednesday night.

“Unless you make the change, unless you have the guts to go for the independent policy, you’re never going to get the economic benefits of Brexit. You’ll never get the political benefits of Brexit,” he said.

Mr Johnson also suggested US president Donald Trump would “go in bloody hard” and “might get somewhere” in the exit talks if he was in charge.

Friends of Mr 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.”

His comments are the latest Brexit headache for Mrs May, who is in Canada for the G7 summit.

Mrs May noted while Mr Johnson has strong views on Brexit “but so do I”, as she attempted to downplay the Foreign Secretary’s outburst on how negotiations are progressing.

The Prime Minister claimed “nobody ever said it was going to be easy” to quit the European Union but pledged to “deliver Brexit for the British people”.

Quizzed on her arrival in La Malbaie for the G7 summit Mrs May told Channel 4 News: “These are complex negotiations. Boris has strong views on Brexit but so do I.

“I want to deliver for the British people, that’s exactly what we are doing as a Government and if you look at the process of these negotiations - nobody ever said it was going to be easy.”

It comes as the prime minister’s latest Brexit proposals received a frosty reception in Brussels, with Michel Barnier raising objections to her plan for a time-limited customs backstop covering the whole UK. But within minutes of concluding a press conference in Brussels, the chief EU negotiator took to Twitter to correct the impression that he was rejecting the UK proposals out of hand, stressing that they would be the subject of discussions in the coming days and weeks.

Responding, Mrs May told the BBC: “This is a negotiation, Michel Barnier has said exactly that point. We have put a proposal on the table, on this backstop relating to Northern Ireland, we will now sit down and negotiate it with the European Union.

“We are getting on with the job and that’s what the British people want.”

Friends of Mr Johnson said it was disappointing that the private dinner had been covertly recorded but senior Conservative Sarah Wollaston said dressing up the comments “under the cover of a ‘private’ discussions won’t wash”.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Foreign Secretary had no credibility whatsoever. Asked about the Foreign Secretary’s remarks following a speech in Berlin, the Chancellor said: “My experience has been that a collaborative approach is generally more productive than a confrontational approach.”

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson’s deputy, Sir Alan Duncan, raised eyebrows in Westminster when he floated the possibility of a referendum on the exit deal.