Boris Johnson’s allies are drawing up plans to supposedly punish EU member states that agree to extend the Article 50 Brexit process, in a further sign that Downing Street is preparing for exit negotiations in Brussels to end this week in an acrimonious breakdown.
Mr Johnson’s aides admit there is little prospect of a breakthrough at an EU summit next week and that the EU will decide to push the prime minister into seeking a delay to Brexit, precipitating a general election.
But in an extraordinary note published by the Spectator magazine, attributed to a “contact in Number 10”, there is a threat that any EU member state that agrees to delay Brexit would be guilty of “hostile” interference in British politics and that Mr Johnson would retaliate.
“We will make clear privately and publicly that countries which oppose delay will go to the front of the queue for future co-operation — co-operation on things both within and outside EU competences,” the note said.
“Those who support delay will go to the bottom of the queue,” the note added, in combative language that many at Westminster will assume came from Mr Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings.
“Supporting delay will be seen by this government as hostile interference in domestic politics, and over half of the public will agree with us.”
Defence and security are examples of areas where the UK could withhold co-operation.
The threat is intended to dissuade the EU from agreeing the Article 50 extension that Mr Johnson must seek, under the terms of the so-called Benn Act, if MPs have not approved a Brexit deal or no deal by October 19.
The extension has to be unanimously granted by the EU27, so it is hard to see how Downing Street might pick off individual member states for retaliatory measures in future.
Previous Downing Street attempts to split the EU over Brexit and to play member states off against each other have failed: the 27 member states have rarely been more united in their approach to a big policy issue.
Hungary’s Viktor Orban has been mooted in Number 10 as one leader who might break ranks to oppose a Brexit extension, but he has his eyes fixed on a share of the next multibillion-euro EU development budget.
That concern is likely to outweigh any considerations about any help that the British government might be able to offer — or withhold — in future once it is a third country outside the EU.
The note published by the Spectator also accused Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar of “going back on his commitments” to negotiate seriously if Mr Johnson agreed to keep Northern Ireland in the EU regulatory zone.
“Varadkar thinks that either there will be a referendum or we win a majority but we will just put this offer back on the table so he thinks he can’t lose by refusing to compromise now,” the note says.
Mr Johnson’s team argues that if Mr Johnson is forced to hold an election he will campaign on a hard Brexit ticket and win, and that the EU is making a “historic miscalculation” if it refuses to negotiate seriously this week.
Amber Rudd, former cabinet minister, told the BBC the note was “angry and desperate” and was written in the style of Mr Cummings. She noted Downing Street had not disowned the memo and no one had been sacked: “Clearly it has come from him.”
Although Number 10’s official line is less combative, the note reflects the view of the former Vote Leave team, led by Mr Cummings, which is now installed in Downing Street and is preparing for a Brexit-focused general election.
If a deal is not agreed in Brussels next week, Mr Johnson will claim that Britain was forced to seek a Brexit delay by the EU, parliament and the courts and try to wash his hands of all responsibility.
“Any delay will in effect be negotiated between you, parliament and the courts — we will wash our hands of it, we won’t engage in further talks,” the note said. “We obviously won’t give any undertakings about co-operative behaviour, everything to do with ‘duty of sincere co-operation’ will be in the toilet.
“Those who supported delay will face the inevitable consequences of being seen to interfere in domestic politics in a deeply unpopular way by colluding with a parliament that is as popular as the clap.
“Those who pushed the Benn Act intended to sabotage a deal and they’ve probably succeeded. So the main effect of it will probably be to help us win an election by uniting the Leave vote and then a no-deal Brexit. History is full of such ironies and tragedies.”