Boris Johnson under fire over unworkable Brexit plan and for being ‘hostage to Nigel Farage’

Exclusive: Would-be prime minister criticised for claiming ‘fear of Farage’ will force Brussels into climbdown – and for backing Irish border technology that does not exist

Rob Merrick,Jon Stone
Saturday 15 June 2019 14:35 BST
Jeremy Hunt taunts Boris Johnson for hiding from media and demands he face rivals in TV debates

Boris Johnson has come under fire at home and abroad after breaking cover to reveal his Brexit plan, while admitting he will duck a live TV debate.

The overwhelming favourite to be prime minister next month was ridiculed for claiming a fear of Nigel Farage would force Brussels to grant him a better deal – with one senior EU figure saying: “No one is scared of him.”

“The Conservative Party may be being held hostage to Nigel Farage, but the EU never will be,” Sophie in ’t Veld, deputy to the European parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, told The Independent before condemning Mr Johnson’s “populist lies”.

The frontrunner was also accused of ignorance after insisting the solution to reaching an agreement – replacing the Irish backstop with hi-tech checks away from the border – was “obvious”. The claim was immediately criticised by a former assistant director at the Department for International Trade, who pointed out the EU had repeatedly rejected the idea as unworkable.

“There’s no border outside of the European Union that operates in this way, so to say that it is something that is straight forward to do is just simply incorrect,” David Henig said.

After finally granting an interview to the BBC, Mr Johnson also admitted to a “single inconclusive event” snorting cocaine as a teenager, while denying he had taken the drug since.

And he provoked anger by claiming accusations that his blundering prolonged the jailing of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran amounted to excusing “the people who are really responsible”.

Mr Johnson agreed to take part in a BBC leadership debate on Tuesday but confirmed he would not show up to a Channel 4 event on Sunday – when he would be faced with all five of his rivals.

The criticism came as Matt Hancock, the health secretary, dropped out of the race after trailing in the first round of voting on Thursday with just 20 backers.

“I ran as the candidate of the future, but the party is understandably looking for a candidate for the unique circumstances we face right now,” Mr Hancock said.

He declined to reveal which of the surviving candidates – Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart and Mr Johnson – he would support.

Mr Hancock will “mull things over” in the coming days, The Independent was told, amid suggestions he will back Mr Javid as another “moderniser”.

The home secretary’s camp strongly denied rumours he will drop out as “b******s”, insisting he was just nine MPs short of the 33 votes required to clear the second round of voting on Tuesday.

One source close to Mr Javid also sniped that Mr Hunt, the foreign secretary, appeared to be losing enthusiasm, as the rivalry to take on Mr Johnson in the second phase of voting, among Tory members, intensified.

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In his interview, Mr Johnson doubled down on his threat to crash out of the EU on 31 October, if necessary, insisting: “I don’t think some of the promises of doom and disaster are true.”

However, he claimed it would not be necessary because the EU would shift on the backstop faced with the “existential threat” of the Brexit Party’s dramatic rise.

“I think what they will see is that politics has changed in the UK and in Europe, they now have 29 Brexit MEPs in Strasbourg,” Mr Johnson argued.

Brussels would agree to replace the backstop – the guarantee of no return to a hard border – with checks taking place elsewhere, using new technology, the Tory frontrunner confidently predicted.

But Mr Henig dismissed the argument, telling the BBC: “This is something that has been said repeatedly by the UK side throughout negotiations and rejected repeatedly by the EU.”

Mr Johnson’s negotiating tactic appeared to be “do the same thing exactly again”, he warned, adding: “Perhaps in the years to come alternative arrangements will become available. They are not available now.”

Ian Murray, a Labour supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, also ridiculed the suggestion, saying: “If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then this proposal is the craziest of all.”

Ms in’ t Veld added: “The only deal on the table is the one that’s been painfully negotiated. Our common priority must be to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish peace process.”

Mr Johnson refused to backtrack on 31 October as the deadline for leaving, deal or no deal, saying it was time “to get this thing done”.

“It would be absolutely bizarre to signal, at this stage, that the UK government was willing once again to run up the white flag and delay again,” he said.

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