Boris Johnson remains the “hardest in the room” in his unwillingness to budge to secure a Brexit deal, government insiders said this weekend, amid warnings that just days remain to finalise an agreement.
After a torrid week for Downing Street which saw two former Vote Leave figures quit the prime minister’s senior team, ministers in favour of a deal said they hoped their departures would boost the chances of finally signing an EU trade agreement after months of brinkmanship.
However, sources familiar with the government’s deliberations said that, at repeated meetings, it had been the prime minister himself who had been the most hardline in wanting to hold out for better terms. They said the departure of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior adviser, and Lee Cain, his communications chief, would not change the fact that Johnson himself remained determined and hard to read.
“The prime minister is always the hardest in the room on Brexit – more so than perhaps other ministers and advisers,” said a senior Whitehall source. Another insider said they were “still hopeful of a deal”, but there was a willingness among cabinet ministers to back the prime minister should he decide on a no-deal outcome.
“To be frank, this is one issue where the cabinet is completely united – like no other policy,” said a person familiar with the deliberations. “[After the election], the prime minister has a lot of political capital on this.”
It comes ahead of a week in which Johnson faces a mammoth decision over whether or not to back a Brexit deal that will inevitably require compromises on the British side. Senior figures such as Michael Gove, the cabinet office minister overseeing Brexit preparations, and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, are said to be advocating a deal.
While progress has been made, persistent problems have emerged around fishing rights and level playing field rules that may prevent Britain from using state aid in the way it wishes. There are also outstanding issues over so-called “regression clauses” that would prevent the UK undercutting the EU in some areas. Talks continue on Monday, with a potential deadline set for a EU leaders’ video conference on Thursday.
However, there are also huge political pressures on Johnson, with some fearing that any sign of Brexit compromise will create yet another opening for Nigel Farage and his new Reform UK party. Farage has said it has already received over 3,000 expressions of interest from supporters over the prospect of running for the party in widespread local elections next year. However, the party is currently focusing its campaigning on opposing the government’s lockdown measures.
Pro-Brexit donors who funded Johnson’s leadership campaign are also becoming nervous over the government’s direction. “It’s been astonishing, actually. I’ve never seen a government that has been less in touch with any of its fingers – any of its extremities,” said one donor. “It’s the end of the fellowship. The fact is [Cummings and Cain] are leaving before the end, which tells you they’re not going to get the deal that they want. Boris is now in a hard place, as he wants to deal at any price.”
Downing Street denies the departures mean a Brexit deal, and compromise with the EU, are now more likely.
The donor added: “I would walk away [from Brexit talks]. There isn’t a lot to lose from doing that, given the deal on offer is essentially only for the traded goods sector. It does nothing for our large services sector anyway.”