Tory rebels are plotting to sabotage Boris Johnson’s Brexit by forcing a delay to the October 31 leaving date – even if the Prime Minister wins Commons support for a deal with the EU next weekend.
Former Cabinet Ministers Philip Hammond and Dominic Grieve are central to moves to compel Mr Johnson to send a letter to Brussels asking for an extension to the UK’s membership, regardless of the outcome of this week’s high-stakes Brexit diplomacy.
The plot, which threatens to throw the Prime Minister’s plans for a snap post-Brexit Election into disarray, caused fury in No 10, which last night accused Mr Hammond of trying to ‘sabotage’ Mr Johnson’s ‘do or die’ Halloween exit date.
The move came amid cautious optimism in Downing Street about the prospects of a last-minute breakthrough in negotiations this weekend over a new customs arrangement for Northern Ireland, which could be approved at Thursday’s critical EU summit in time for MPs to vote for it at Saturday’s historic Commons sitting.
Former Cabinet Ministers Philip Hammond and Dominic Grieve (right) are central to moves to compel Mr Johnson to send a letter to Brussels asking for an extension to the UK’s membership, regardless of the outcome of this week’s high-stakes Brexit diplomacy
Sources said that Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party and the Irish government in Dublin were ‘engaging’ with the idea of removing the need for a border with the Republic of Ireland by keeping the province inside the EU’s customs umbrella while allowing it to benefit from the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals.
However, Tory MPs in the hard-line ERG group and many Ministers remain in the dark about what exactly Mr Johnson has put on the table.
And last night, Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, repeated his demand that Northern Ireland must leave the EU Customs Union with Great Britain, with No 10 seeking to reassure him by making private promises this was still a negotiation ‘red line’.
The plot, which threatens to throw Boris Johnson’s plans for a snap post-Brexit Election into disarray, caused fury in No 10, which last night accused Mr Hammond of trying to ‘sabotage’ Mr Johnson’s ‘do or die’ Halloween exit date
The Brexit plan is expected to be discussed by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel over dinner in Paris this evening ahead of the Brussels summit.
But without a Commons majority, Mr Johnson will be forced to rely on both Labour rebels and the votes of many of the 21-strong group of former Tory MPs who lost the whip last month when they voted to block a No Deal Brexit.
The Mail on Sunday understands that the group, which includes former Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, is split over whether to vote for the deal – with one prominent member warning that it looked like a ‘pretty hard Brexit’ for Great Britain even if it amounted to a ‘very, very soft Brexit’ for Northern Ireland.
However, there is more of a consensus that Mr Johnson should be forced to delay Brexit, even if he wins MPs’ backing for the deal.
The delay faction, which includes Mr Hammond, argues that the Prime Minister should not be allowed to take the UK out of the EU at the end of the month without the Commons being given more time to examine the deal and pass the necessary legislation.
Former Cabinet Office Minister Sir David Lidington said: ‘I’ve always felt there would at least need to be a time where technical legal details had to be hammered out and that was going to take us beyond the end of October’
A source close to the former Chancellor said: ‘There is a distinction between Parliament “approving” the broad outline of a deal in a simple motion and Parliament legislating for a deal.
‘The fact is that the latter is not possible in the time remaining, so the Benn Act will come into force to allow some time to legislate and finalise the deal.’
The source added that the Benn Act – the law passed by pro-Remain MPs to compel Mr Johnson to request a Brexit delay if he had not secured a deal by October 19 – ‘has clearly forced the Prime Minister to finally devote time and energy into securing a deal’.
Last night, in response, a senior Government source said: ‘As Chancellor, Hammond sabotaged the negotiations and sabotaged preparations to leave – now he’s trying to sabotage leaving altogether.
‘His latest move shows that he is not trying to stop No Deal – he is trying to enforce a No Brexit’.
Even one fellow Conservative rebel described Mr Hammond as ‘totally paranoid’.
Seven frantic days will decide the UK’s future
It is the make-or-break week that will decide the fate of Boris Johnson’s Brexit and maybe even of Brexit itself.
But the momentous seven days begin today with a crucial event he is not invited to – a meeting in Paris between Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.
Their dinner in the Elysee Palace this evening will go a long way to deciding how other EU leaders judge Mr Johnson’s ‘deal’ with Irish premier Leo Varadkar.
Tomorrow, Mr Johnson will hope the Queen’s Speech will give the country a vision of his post-Brexit UK as Her Majesty sets out the Government’s new programme of legislation.
But the glittering pomp of the state opening of Parliament will arguably be overshadowed in Brexit importance by a meeting in drab surroundings in Brussels.
There, Michel Barnier, EU chief Brexit negotiator, is due to brief EU ambassadors on the progress of talks.
On Tuesday, Ministers from across the EU are set to meet in Luxembourg where the overall outline of a deal must be agreed if it is to be signed off by the end of the week.
Then on Wednesday Mr Macron and Ms Merkel will hold another ‘tete-a-tete’ ahead of a joint Franco-German cabinet meeting in Toulouse.
On Thursday Mr Johnson will join the Council of Ministers summit in Brussels to begin debating approval of the deal and/or a delay to the entire Brexit process.
Sometime on Friday the Prime Minister will know whether the EU has signed off his deal or read the last rites over it.
The week reaches its momentous climax with a Saturday sitting of Parliament – the first since the Falklands conflict.
If a deal has been agreed, Mr Johnson will seek to get the Commons to approve it.
If he has failed to get a deal, the PM will fight to get MPs to agree to his ‘do or die’ pledge to achieve Brexit by October 31 regardless.
In either case, Labour MPs and Tory rebels are threatening to combine to force him to accept a delay or a second referendum as the price of backing any deal.
Late on Saturday, Mr Johnson and the country will find out just who has won.
By Brendan Carlin
The rebel ridiculed the former Chancellor, saying he wanted to vote for a delay to Brexit because he feared that Mr Johnson would try to introduce a No Deal Brexit ‘by the back door’ by ‘crashing’ the deal after the October 19 deadline stipulated by the Benn Act had expired.
But Mr Hammond’s stance was backed by Tory former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who insisted Mr Johnson would have to accept a delay even if his deal passed. Mr Grieve said: ‘He’s going to have to extend. I cannot see how he would be justified in trying to force through a major piece of constitutional legislation, the Withdrawal Agreement Act, in seven days. It’s improper.’
And former Cabinet Office Minister Sir David Lidington said: ‘I’ve always felt there would at least need to be a time where technical legal details had to be hammered out and that was going to take us beyond the end of October.’
Sir David, who was Theresa May’s de facto deputy, also mocked Mr Johnson’s key advisor Dominic Cummings for making ‘Kevin the Teenager-style’ rants, adding: ‘When advisors become a story it’s usually a bad thing for the politician who’s hired them’.
Another of the Tory rebels said: ‘It’s hard to see how he [Mr Johnson] can get all of this done by October 31 realistically.
‘At a practical level, I think it would be extraordinary if the draft text could be finalised before then and you cannot begin to do the legislation until that’s been done.
‘I don’t see it’s feasible to leave on October 31. I can’t see how we could with confidence pass the necessary motion next Saturday which means that the Benn Act provisions do not apply,’ the rebel added.
‘It might be a technical extension but you still might require a couple of months just to have time to agree the legal text and take the legislation through. I think the letter [to delay] will still be needed.’
Mr Johnson’s Brexit negotiator David Frost was holed up in Brussels talks last night that will continue throughout today before his EU counterpart briefs member states on the progress of talks.
A senior Downing Street source told The Mail on Sunday that there was ‘medium’ hope of a breakthrough but insisted that ‘we’re not about to sell out our core principles’.
There are fears that reopening the Withdrawal Agreement to remove the hated Northern Irish backstop with Mr Johnson’s new customs plan will mean 11th hour demands from other EU countries when the UK is most vulnerable.
EU sources say Germany’s commissioner Gunther Oettinger has privately suggested hiking the UK’s £39 billion divorce bill in order to make Britain pay for Europe’s No Deal contingency planning. And there are also warnings that Spain could launch a fresh assault on winning concessions over Gibraltar.
If Mr Johnson fails to win a deal or MPs vote down his deal, pro-Remain MPs are discussing multipleoptions to delay Brexit – including legislating to give Speaker John Bercow the power to send the letter to Brussels or even appointing him as an interim PM by voting down the Queen’s Speech in the week starting October 21 and voting no confidence in the Government.
Brexit and War of the Wags collide: Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar joke, ‘We got on better than Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy’ as they reach a ‘breakthrough’ in top secret talks
The anonymous sniping and briefings swirling between the UK and the EU at the beginning of last week would have made Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy blush. Pictured are Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson as WAGs
The anonymous sniping and briefings swirling between the UK and the EU at the beginning of last week would have made Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy blush.
Faceless No 10 aides tore chunks out of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, while EU Council President Donald Tusk took to Twitter to mock Boris Johnson in his beloved Latin.
But by Thursday the two biggest news stories of the week – Brexit and the War of the WAGs – collided in a wedding venue just outside Liverpool.
Mr Varadkar, who has been the pin-up baddie for Brexiteers over the past three years, broke the ice as he sat down with Boris Johnson in the wood-panelled reception room of 19th Century Thornton Manor on the Wirral.
‘You know this is where Coleen Rooney had her birthday party,’ he said.
‘Well, we get on better than those two,’ Mr Johnson quipped back, in a nod to the ongoing saga between Mrs Rooney and the wife of England footballer Jamie Vardy.
After exchanging small talk about their partners and Downing Street’s new dog Dilyn, the pair kicked out their aides and did not reappear for 90 minutes.
What they discussed remains a tightly guarded secret, but there has been a total change in the relationship between Mr Johnson and his Irish counterpart, compared to Mr Varadkar’s tense and scratchy dealings with Theresa May.
‘Boris finds Leo very impressive,’ says a source close to the PM. ‘They get on very well.’
The talks lasted long enough for both peckish Downing Street staff and their Merrion Street counterparts to put aside three years of tense talks and eat their bosses’ prepared lunch. They were putting away the smoked salmon and suitably European prosciutto sandwiches, pasta and a cheeseboard meant for the premiers when the two leaders called them back into the room for further talks.
Mr Varadkar broke the ice as he sat down with Boris Johnson in the wood-panelled reception room of 19th Century Thornton Manor on the Wirral. ‘You know this is where Coleen Rooney had her birthday party,’ he said. ‘Well, we get on better than those two,’ Mr Johnson quipped back
‘It was instantly clear there had been a breakthrough,’ a Downing Street aide said. ‘We were hopeful that the moment Leo set foot in England we might have a chance, but their smiles took everyone back a bit.’
Extra lunch had to be ordered when the pair had finally finished further talks in the grounds of the manor, while aides hammered out a joint statement that neither side had expected to be so positive just hours earlier.
But in reality their meeting was the product of weeks of delicate diplomacy behind the scenes, even if pugnacious No 10 aide Dominic Cummings’ briefings against the EU garnered the most public attention.
Following a row over the leaking of details of a call with between Mr Johnson and Mrs Merkel on Tuesday, followed by a vicious briefing against Mr Varadkar’s intransigence on Wednesday, it looked like all hope of a deal was dead.
A 30-minute phone call between Chancellor Sajid Javid and his Irish counterpart Paschal Donohoe helped soothe tempers, but defenders of Mr Cummings insist there was ‘method to the madness’ and the hardline stance helped to ‘bring the Irish to our table’.
However two other key Downing Street figures have been singled out for making the Liverpool summit happen – Brexit negotiator David Frost and Chief of Staff Sir Edward Lister.
A Downing Street insider said: ‘There has been a lot of nonsense floating around for the last few weeks that we haven’t been trying to get a deal.
‘In reality Frosty has been working his b******s off in Brussels since August, and Eddie has diligently won over the Irish, flying back and forth to Dublin under the radar for weeks.
‘Three months ago Varadkar was saying no talks, no changes, nothing. But there he was, negotiating with the Brits in Britain.’