Boris Johnson snubs Leo Varadkar as UK 'ups ante' on stand-off over Brexit backstop

Boris Johnson (Dominic Lipinski/PA)


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Hugh O'Connell and Cormac McQuinn

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in a stand-off with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar over the Brexit backstop amid a deterioration in Anglo-Irish relations.

Mr Johnson's failure to speak to Mr Varadkar nearly a week after he took office is being viewed in Government and diplomatic circles as evidence of Britain trying to "up the ante" over the backstop that it wants removed from the Brexit deal.

In a further sign of the widening chasm between the UK and the EU, Mr Johnson's spokeswoman signalled yesterday that he will refuse to meet EU leaders, including the Taoiseach, until they agree to ditch the backstop.

Mr Johnson later insisted: "I don't want the UK to be aloof or hanging back. I want us to engage, to hold out the hand, to go the extra mile, the extra thousand miles."

But he reiterated that "the present Withdrawal Agreement is dead, the backstop must go".

Efforts were under way between officials in London and Dublin to organise a call between the two leaders last night, nearly a week after Mr Johnson took office. The delay in them speaking is unprecedented in recent times.

"There has been contact at official level and it's expected that the Taoiseach and the PM will speak in the near future," Mr Varadkar's spokesman said.

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A senior Irish Government figure believes this is "part of a new British strategy to be seen to up the ante on the backstop".

A Government source acknowledged it was "out of the ordinary" that the pair had not spoken and a diplomatic source said this was not in keeping with practice.

  • Leo Varadkar spoke to Theresa May within two days of becoming Taoiseach in 2017.
  • ️Theresa May spoke to Enda Kenny on the day she became PM in 2016.
  • Enda Kenny spoke to David Cameron two days after he was re-elected prime minister in 2015.

However, another Government source cautioned it was "too early to draw conclusions" about the British strategy, insisting much would depend on Mr Varadkar meeting Mr Johnson face-to-face.

But Mr Johnson's spokeswoman said he will not hold face-to-face meetings with EU leaders unless they agree to renegotiate the backstop.

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"The EU has said up to now it is not willing to renegotiate [the backstop]... the prime minister would be happy to sit down with leaders when that position changes. But he is making it clear to everybody he speaks to that that needs to happen," she said.

The stand-off with the Taoiseach over the Brexit backstop is a result of Leo Varadkar’s “failure to engage in basic diplomacy”, a senior Fianna Fáil TD has claimed.

In a strongly-worded attack this morning, Mr Dooley said that the government’s “lack of experience and arrogance” will hurt Ireland in Brexit talks over the coming months.

“The stand off with our nearest neighbour is as a direct result of Taoiseach Varadkars (sic) failure to engage in basic diplomacy over the past 2 years. The Governments (sic) lack of experience and arrogance will hurt Ireland in the coming months,” Mr Dooley wrote in a tweet.

The tweet referenced today’s Irish Independent report on the failure of Mr Johnson to speak with Mr Varadkar nearly a week after he took office. Mr Dooley’s remarks mark a significant departure from the cross-bench solidarity in the Dáil that has broadly seen the Irish government’s approach to the Brexit talks backed by most parties.

Mr Dooley’s remarks were retweeted by another Fianna Fáil frontbench TD, Thomas Byrne. Another Fianna Fáil TD Margaret Murphy-O’Mahony wrote on Twitter the delay in the two leaders talking “says so much about our Taoiseach #badlyhandling”

However Mr Dooley’s remarks were criticised by a number of Fine Gael TDs whilst Labour leader Brendan Howlin said “this is not the time for playing politics”, adding: “The risk of a hard Brexit has never been higher. Our focus should be on preparing for the potential economic shock.”

Yesterday on a visit to Scotland, where Mr Johnson was booed by crowds ahead of a meeting with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the Prime Minister said he was "reaching out" to Mr Varadkar.

However, his stance that the backstop must go puts him on a collision course with Ireland and the EU.

Europe Minister Helen McEntee said: "What we need to remind the prime minister and the UK government is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland have all come out in support of the backstop.

"The phonecall between the Taoiseach and the prime minister hasn't happened yet, but he said very early on that he was looking forward to speaking and engaging with him," she told RTÉ's 'Drivetime'.

She said there was always going to be some "tension", "but our objective has always been... to protect the status quo on this island and that is what this backstop is for".