World News

Trump Doing Brexit? A ‘Very Good Thought,’ Says Britain’s Top Diplomat

Posted June 8, 2018 4:38 p.m. EDT

LONDON — After surviving the latest round of infighting in her divided Cabinet, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain was in a good enough mood to speak to reporters after she boarded her plane to the Group of 7 summit meeting in Canada, late Thursday.

But upon landing she was met with leaked remarks from her wayward foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and, as so often, Britain’s most senior diplomat had hardly been diplomatic.

May’s government, said Johnson, lacks “guts” in its negotiation over British withdrawal from the European Union, or Brexit, which the foreign secretary champions. He dismissed the importance of the Irish border, a major sticking point in negotiations with the European Union, saying it was inconsequential.

“It’s so small and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly, it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way. We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly,” he said in comments leaked to BuzzFeed.

He did allow that there could be some problems implementing Brexit, but said these were being exaggerated by its opponents.

“That fear of short-term disruption has become so huge in people’s minds that it’s turning them all wet,” Johnson said. “Project Fear is really working on them.”

He even suggested that President Donald Trump, widely derided in Britain, would do a better job negotiating Brexit than May.

“I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump,” Johnson said. “I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness.”

“Imagine Trump doing Brexit,” Johnson went on. “There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”

The release of the comments, which were recorded at a dinner for members of the right-wing Conservative Way Forward group on Wednesday, added to a febrile political atmosphere in London over Brexit.

On Thursday a tense standoff between May and David Davis, her Brexit secretary, was resolved after two meetings and despite rumors that he had been on the verge of resignation.

Davis ultimately agreed to a British backstop plan to guarantee that there would be no hard border between Ireland, which will remain in the European Union, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Under the original plan proffered by May, Britain would retain most of the bloc’s rules on customs and tariffs until a final deal could be struck.

This was unacceptable to Davis, Johnson and others who campaigned for Brexit, in that it sounded like a formula for perpetual semi-membership of the European Union. The dispute was settled, temporarily at least, by suggesting Britain would move away from the bloc’s customs rules no later than December 2021, when it “expects” to leave entirely.

The respite was brief, however, because on Friday the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, gave a scathing response to the British plan, suggesting that Brexit negotiations were again at an impasse.

May’s proposal, Barnier said, “raises more questions than it provides answers.”

And he rejected her backstop proposal to keep the whole of the United Kingdom under the same rules as Northern Ireland, unless Britain accepted other obligations like freedom of movement for European workers.

On Friday the prime minister’s office declined to comment on Johnson’s well-publicized criticisms, because they were covertly recorded. In reality, she wants to avoid acknowledging them because she might then be forced to confront Johnson. That, in turn, could lead to his firing or resignation, which could destabilize her party.

Of course, Johnson is well-known for colorful, undiplomatic language. Before he became foreign secretary he produced a poem insinuating that Turkey’s president had sexual relations with a goat, likened the EU to Hitler’s Third Reich, and accused Trump (before his election) of “stupefying ignorance.”

Nor was it the first time Johnson had undermined his boss in Downing Street. Last year, ahead of her set-piece speech to their Conservative Party’s annual conference, he published a 4,000-word essay in The Daily Telegraph, a conservative newspaper where he was formerly a columnist, laying out his own agenda designed to appeal to hard-line enthusiasts for a clean break with the EU in 2019.

One ideological opponent, Andrew Adonis, asked on Twitter whether there had been a more disloyal minister since Bolingbroke, perhaps a reference to Henry Bolingbroke, who seized the crown from King Richard II, or perhaps to Lord Bolingbroke, a government official of the early 18th century who later became involved in a failed attempt to overthrow King George I.

But, in attacking the Treasury, run by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, Johnson won some support from hard-line Brexit supporters.

For Johnson, criticizing May helps to position him as a potential successor to her because Conservative Party activists have the final say on who becomes their next leader, and most are enthusiasts for Brexit.

Blaming a lack of “guts” for the failure to deliver the extravagant promises made by Brexit campaigners in the 2016 referendum might also be more palatable than explaining that some of those pledges — enthusiastically trumpeted by Johnson himself — were undeliverable.

Johnson’s praise for Trump’s tough negotiating style comes after the United States infuriated and humiliated Europe’s leaders, including May, by imposing tariffs on European steel and aluminum exports.

On Friday, Johnson’s sister, the journalist Rachel Johnson, told the BBC that her brother would be disappointed at the latest leak but suggested that he should not have been surprised.

When the foreign secretary addresses an audience on a hot topic like Brexit, she said, “You can imagine that somebody might get their iPhone out and press voice memo.”