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Noel Whelan: Adjectives used to describe Raab range from ‘disingenuous’ to ‘dishonest’

Tory leadership contender is accused of distorting truth of meeting with Coveney

On Tuesday, October 30th last, a small group sat down for a private dinner in the comfortable surrounds of the Irish Ambassador’s residence at Grosvenor Square in London. The gathering took place at a very sensitive moment, diplomatically and politically. Negotiations on the withdrawal agreement for Britain’s exit from the European Union appeared about to come to an end and pro-Brexit ministers were threatening to resign from Theresa May’s cabinet if a backstop as then proposed was included in the agreement.

Dominic Raab had been appointed Brexit secretary the previous July and it seems both the Irish and European sides had found the MP a curious and, at times, bullish character. It was in that context that Tánaiste Simon Coveney invited Raab to a dinner, presumably in order to get to know him better in a more relaxed setting.

Over dinner Raab floated the idea that the Border backstop problem in the Brexit negotiations could be solved by introducing a review clause enabling either side to unilaterally end the backstop after three months. The Irish in the room choked on their soup at the notion that Raab could think such a proposal would run. Even some of the British present had to restrain themselves from displaying shock. It was patently obvious to anyone engaged, even superficially, in the negotiations that a time-limited backstop and/or a unilateral exit provision was not a backstop at all.

Raab narrative

Within 10 days of the dinner, a Daily Telegraph story described how Raab, playing the tough negotiator, had put this proposal up to the Government. The Raab narrative, at this stage being advanced off the record, was that Coveney had actually been open to the idea of a time-limited backstop but that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had later scuppered any such notion.


A week later Raab resigned as Brexit secretary when the final withdrawal agreement was published and included a ‘permanent’ backstop.

On January 20th, the BBC’s Andrew Marr tried to nail Raab down on whether in fact the Government had ever told him that a time-limited backstop with a unilateral exit mechanism would be acceptable. Raab replied “I met with Simon Coveney, it was very clear that he wasn’t ruling things out. They got ruled out by Leo Varadkar, who is less moderate.”

Raab then patronisingly went on to suggest that the Government had foolishly hoisted themselves into an unwinnable position on the backstop and “we need to give them a ladder to climb down”.

So incensed was the Government at what Raab told Marr that Coveney took to Twitter, unusually on a Sunday, to respond: “For the record Taoiseach and I have always been on the same page. We remain united and focused on protecting Ireland, that includes support for the implementation of the EU/UK Withdrawal Agreement in full.”

In a further twist this week, Raab has moved on from blaming the supposed hard-liner Varadkar for thwarting his big Brexit deal and instead accuses David Lidington, who is May’s de facto deputy prime minister, of going behind his back. According to Raab, Lidington was given the task by May of “hand-holding the Irish government during the final phases of the negotiating of the withdrawal agreement” but that instead he used his role to push a softer agenda than that with which Raab claims he was succeeding.

Last week, in an interview with the Spectator, Raab maintained that he was “on the brink” of negotiating a breakthrough with the Irish. He told Katy Bals that he (now) “doesn’t blame anyone in Dublin. The frustrating thing it that it was closed by our own side.” Specifically, he suspects Lidington.


Raab’s Spectator interview drew a massive blowback from an interesting quarter. In a robust tweetstorm, none other than Peter Foster, Europe editor of the Daily Telegraph, branded Raab’s claim about Lidington as “a great distortion of the truth”.

As Foster, and many other commentators see it, all Raab was doing in putting an unacceptable proposal to the Irish was burnishing his credentials for the precise moment we are now at: the Conservative leadership contest.

Interestingly, Foster says the widespread view is that Raab “has a habit of twisting meetings” and that the adjectives used by those who have had dealings with him range from “disingenuous” to “dishonest”.

In all walks of life there are people who everyone knows can’t be trusted. Their unreliability is glaringly obvious. However, we also all encounter people whose dissembling is more subtle. These are the types of people about whom work colleagues quietly warn “that guy is not to be trusted,” or “don’t get caught in a meeting with him without a note taker”.

Boris Johnson falls into the former category of easily identifiable as untrustworthy. Raab falls into the latter category of Iago-like dissemblers. The depressing thing for Anglo-Irish relations is that either of these two men could soon be prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.