Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan appeared to be all but dead on Tuesday night as the government admitted there was little prospect of a deal before 31 October, following a day of furious recriminations.
The prime minister spoke to the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, on the phone after a stormy 24 hours of briefing and counter-briefing, as concerns about his tactics were even raised in Johnson’s cabinet.
In Brussels, a further extension that could be as long as next summer is now considered almost inevitable, despite Johnson’s continued insistence that the UK would leave on 31 October, with or without a deal.
A blame game erupted on Tuesday morning as the cabinet gathered in Downing Street when an anonymous source briefed selected journalists about a private call between the prime minister and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
The unnamed figure in No 10 claimed that Berlin’s insistence on keeping Northern Ireland in the EU customs union made a Brexit deal “essentially impossible, not just now but ever”.
That message infuriated Donald Tusk, the European council president, who tweeted directly at 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? [Where are you going?].”
That sentiment was echoed by the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who said “nobody would come out a winner” in a no-deal scenario. “I do not accept this ‘blame game’ of pinning the eventual failure of the negotiations on the EU. If that’s the case, the explanation is actually in the British camp,” he said.
Juncker said Johnson’s Brexit proposals would leave the UK with a relationship with the EU that was “less intimate than with Canada”.
A senior UK government source conceded the talks had stalled, even though David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, is still trying to keep discussions going in Brussels.
“At some point, we were going to hit this rock on both sides on the customs issue. If it’s the EU position that Northern Ireland has to be in the customs union, and that does appear to be the case, that’s not acceptable to us. Our position is that we need to come out and that seems to be where we are stuck.”
Both sides agree that customs arrangements on the island of Ireland are at the crux of the standoff – though Brussels also rejects what it regards as a Democratic Unionist party veto over plans to keep Northern Ireland’s regulations in line with those of the EU.
The Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said that Johnson had told Varadkar on Tuesday evening that he still wanted a deal.
Johnson and Varadkar have agreed to meet in the coming days, with both sides keen to avoid blame for no deal.
However, the taoiseach said Ireland and the EU would not accept an agreement at “any cost”. He told RTÉ news: “There are some fundamental objectives that haven’t changed for the past three years and we need them guaranteed. I think it is going to be very difficult to secure an agreement by next week, quite frankly.”
Nicky Morgan and Julian Smith were among those who challenged Johnson during what several sources claimed was a tetchy cabinet meeting. When Morgan questioned the prime minister about anonymous briefings, he replied that ministers should listen to him instead.
After the meeting was over, Smith issued a rebuke to the person – believed to be the prime minister’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings – who anonymously briefed the Spectator that the government would withhold security cooperation from EU countries who supported a Brexit delay.
“I am clear that any threat on withdrawing security cooperation with Ireland is unacceptable. This is not in the interest of Northern Ireland or the Union,” Smith tweeted.
The statement triggered speculation that he could resign, but sources close to Smith insisted that he was “going nowhere”.
When Johnson arrived in Downing Street in July, he insisted that all recruits to his cabinet sign up to the idea of pursuing a no-deal Brexit if it proved impossible to strike an agreement with Brussels.
But some are privately concerned about persistent suggestions Johnson could try to circumvent the Benn act, which is aimed at forcing him to request a Brexit delay if he fails to strike a deal at next week’s European council meeting.
The Benn act suggests an extension of Brexit talks until the end of January 2020 but there will be concern in EU capitals that this may not provide sufficient time for any potential fallout from a general election to play out.
During angry exchanges in the House of Commons on Tuesday, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, accused Johnson of deliberately making a proposal he knew Brussels would reject.
“Talks with the EU are collapsing as we speak,” he said, responding to a defiant statement from Michael Gove about no-deal Brexit preparedness.
“The proposals that the government introduced last week were never going to work and instead of reacting to challenge by adapting them, they are intent on collapsing the talks and engaging in a reckless blame game. It will be working people who pay the price. The prime minister should be here to account for his actions.”
The European parliament president, David Sassoli, emerged downbeat from discussions with Johnson in London on Tuesday, telling reporters the UK government’s plans were “not an actual proposal”.
Sassoli appeared exasperated and said that Johnson had refused to consider any new holistic proposals, instead repeating that the UK would leave on 31 October come what may. This lack of flexibility was “extremely sad”, the Italian said.
Asked if he thought Johnson was serious about a deal, Sassoli repeated that Johnson had given no new proposals and merely insisted on a 31 October departure.
“I think each and every one of us must reach the conclusions that they believe the most appropriate,” he said. “I sincerely hope that there will be a wake-up call. Up to the very last minute, it will be possible for the European Union and parliament to try and find a deal.” Sassoli added that MEPs were open to a Brexit extension.
In Brussels, diplomats are beginning to turn their minds to the length of any potential extension. A range of dates will be in play at the meeting of European leaders next week, but sources suggested the natural cut-off date would be next June.
With an extension of the UK’s EU membership now looking inevitable, other diplomatic sources suggested an unlikely outlier for an end date could even precede a possible general election so as to force the Commons into accepting a deal. “But politicians like to keep things off their plates for as long as possible and so pushing it longer seems more realistic,” a senior EU diplomat said.
Brussels appears to have accepted that negotiations over a deal are effectively dead, following Downing Street’s extraordinary claims over the substance of the phone conversation between Merkel and Johnson.
The alleged content of the Merkel-Johnson call was dismissed by senior politicians in Berlin as being “improbable”.
MPs were sent home on Tuesday night as parliament is suspended for a few days in the run-up to next week’s Queen’s speech, which Johnson will use to set out an election-friendly list of domestic priorities.
Most at Westminster expect Johnson to be forced into requesting a Brexit extension and to then trigger a general election, which could be held in November or early December.
However, Johnson continues to insist that Britain will leave the EU on 31 October – a message the government is promoting with a multimillion pound public information campaign urging businesses and the public to “get ready”.