Wednesday 18 September 2019

Boris Johnson in grab for control as hard Brexit threat increases

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Blame game: Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Britain’s Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay at a conference in Paris. Photo: Kamil Zihnioglu/AP

Cormac McQuinn, Hugh O'Connell and Philip Ryan

Boris Johnson has seized control of Brexit by suspending the UK Parliament, heightening Irish Government fears of a crash-out.

Cabinet ministers here believe the British prime minister is seeking to force a general election as he chases a majority government to wrest control of the Brexit agenda.

The UK has been plunged into a massive constitutional crisis after Mr Johnson asked Queen Elizabeth to suspend parliament for more than a month.

The House of Commons now won't sit from the second week in September until October 14 - just three days before a crunch EU summit ahead of the Halloween Brexit deadline - leaving MPs little time to discuss the situation or propose new legislation.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn branded the move a "smash and grab on our democracy in order to force through a no-deal Brexit". He promised a no-confidence motion in the prime minister.

Commons Speaker John Bercow said the move was a "constitutional outrage" designed to stop parliament debating Brexit.

Mr Johnson has denied this was his motive, insisting the plan for a Queen's Speech on October 14 is to set out a "very exciting agenda" of domestic policy. He also denied the move was to pave the way for an early general election.

However, it came after UK Chancellor Sajid Javid fuelled speculation about an early election by bringing forward the date of spending announcements on crowd-pleasing measures such as funding boosts for schools and hospitals.

"He wants the House of Commons to force him into an election which he thinks he can win," an Irish Government source said of Mr Johnson's move.

If the Conservative Party did gain a majority, this would allow Mr Johnson to form a government without the need for support from Northern Ireland's DUP and give him the freedom to pursue Brexit with or without a deal.

One Irish source said the suspension of parliament meant an election would be the "only way to stop" a no-deal Brexit. A Government minister said Mr Johnson has "looked like he's been angling for that [an election] from day one".

The minister added that the unprecedented move "might finally provoke the pro-deal side to get their act together".

Another senior source said "volatility and uncertainty" had been a feature of British politics for "quite some time".

"Every single day that passes as we get closer to October 31, the risk of a no-deal increases," the source said.

The Government has been cautious in its public comments on Mr Johnson's move, with Tánaiste Simon Coveney saying it's a "matter for the British parliament".

However, Minister of State Michael D'Arcy last night broke ranks by branding Mr Johnson's decision as "anti-democratic" and comparing him to the controversial British coloniser Oliver Cromwell.

Mr D'Arcy said on Twitter: "This was a military dictatorship. Cromwell dismissed his parliament when they disagreed with him."

Sources close to Mr D'Arcy said he was not given clearance to tweet the criticism and the post was deleted.

Mr Coveney was in France where he and UK Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay engaged in a public blame game over who will be responsible for a no-deal scenario. It came as they addressed a conference of French business leaders.

The pair previously held a 45-minute meeting at the Irish Embassy in Paris, where Mr Coveney reiterated the EU's position that the Withdrawal Agreement struck by Theresa May won't be reopened.

Later - at the event held by the Medef business group - Mr Coveney said the Government would oppose Mr Johnson's bid to abolish the backstop to avoid a hard Border in the absence of viable alternative arrangements. He insisted a no-deal Brexit would be the choice of the UK government, not the EU nor Ireland and "no amount of political grandstanding, or attempts to shift the blame, can change this fact".

Mr Barclay told the audience a deal was still possible if the EU showed "creativity and flexibility" on the backstop.

He added that if there was a no-deal exit, "people will question in the future why there was such a lack of flexibility".

Meanwhile, Sammy Wilson MP last night claimed the DUP has been holding preliminary talks with the British Government for weeks over a new confidence and supply deal.

The MP for East Antrim said: "There are a number of things we have already been talking to the Government about, but we have agreed we will say nothing publicly.

"[Boris Johnson] met with Arlene [Foster] and Nigel [Dodds] in Belfast… there's a good strong relationship with his team."

Irish Independent

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