Michael Gove has accused Brussels of refusing to negotiate a new Brexit deal, saying the UK was seeking further talks “in a spirit of friendliness” despite repeated warnings from Boris Johnson that the country is ready to crash out of the EU come what may.
Gove, the minister with responsibility for no-deal preparations, claimed that he was “deeply saddened that the EU now seems to be refusing to negotiate with UK”.
The Guardian reported on Monday that Brussels diplomats briefed on a meeting between senior EU figures and Boris Johnson’s chief envoy had been told a no-deal Brexit was the UK’s “central scenario” and that Downing Street would not countenance any discussions involving the backstop.
One EU diplomat said: “it was clear that the UK does not have another plan. No intention to negotiate, which would require a plan.”
Gove said any refusal to negotiate or consider alternatives was on the EU’s side. “The prime minister has been clear that he wants to negotiate a good deal with the European Union,” he told reporters.
“He will apply all the energy of the government and ensure that in the spirit of friendliness we can negotiate a new deal. But one thing is clear: the old deal that was negotiated has failed to pass the House of Commons three times now, so we do need a new approach.
“Whatever happens, while we remain ready and willing to negotiate, the EU must appreciate that we’re leaving on October 31, deal or no deal.”
Gove’s remarks follow reports of private instructions from Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief strategist, to special advisers.
The Daily Telegraph reported that Cummings had threatened Downing Street staff with the sack if they tried to block no-deal and accused former ministers including Philip Hammond of seeking to frustrate Brexit.
European officials briefed on the meeting with Johnson’s envoy, David Frost, were told he had explained that there would be no discussions involving a backstop in Ireland and that a technological solution was the UK’s preferred option. He admitted, however, that “it would not be ready now for Brexit”.
Despite the hardening of the UK’s position, the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said yesterday that he did not believe a no-deal Brexit was inevitable.
On a visit to Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, the Irish prime minister reiterated the EU position that the withdrawal agreement was not open for renegotiation, but that clarifications and changes to the political declaration on the future relationship could be made.
“I don’t accept it’s unavoidable,” Varadkar said of prospects of a no-deal Brexit.
“There are many ways by which a no-deal can be avoided. Either by the ratification of the withdrawal agreement, a further extension or revocation of Article 50.
“So, there are a number of ways that a no-deal can be avoided on October 31. I am certainly not fatalistic about that.” But he added: “As time goes on, yes, a no-deal becomes more likely, that’s why we have been preparing for it even from before the referendum took place,” he said.
He also said a no-deal departure would not end the Brexit process.
“There are people who have perhaps become frustrated with the Brexit process and they are almost saying to themselves ‘you know, at least if we have no-deal on October 31 it’s all over and it’s all done’,” Varadkar said.
“What I am saying is it doesn’t end on October 31. If we have no-deal we are going to have to talk, and the first things on the agenda are going to be citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the solution to the Irish border, before we even start to talk about a free-trade agreement.”