LONDON – With just over three weeks before the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a fresh rebellion in his cabinet, according to media reports, with a group of ministers poised to resign due to concern he is leading the country towards a “no-deal” Brexit.
The future of the U.K.’s relationship with the EU remains deeply uncertain, with both London and Brussels positioning themselves to avoid blame for a delay or a disorderly “no-deal” Brexit.
According to a report by The Times newspaper on Wednesday, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan, Minister for Northern Ireland Julian Smith, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, Health Minister Matt Hancock and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox are all on a “resignation watch list.”
An unnamed cabinet minister cited by the newspaper said that a “very large number” of Conservative members of parliament will quit if it comes to a “no-deal” Brexit.
Ministers had warned Johnson in a Cabinet meeting about the “grave” risk of the return of direct rule in Northern Ireland and raised concerns about Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s top adviser, according to the report.
“Cabinet will set the strategy, not unelected officials. If this is an attempt to do that then it will fail”, the report quoted another cabinet minister as saying.
While the newspaper did not specify how many Conservative lawmakers oppose a “no-deal” scenario, the Financial Times reported early on Wednesday that at least 50 members of parliament from the party would revolt against a general election manifesto pledging to pursue a “no-deal” Brexit.
Certain lawmakers from the party are considering running on a softer individual Brexit platform or even standing aside altogether as a Tory candidate, the FT report added.
The media reports come as the European Union accused the U.K. of playing a “stupid blame game” over Brexit, after a Downing Street source told Reuters a deal was essentially impossible because German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made unacceptable demands.
Unusually, Downing Street provided a readout of what Merkel reportedly said, provoking an incendiary tweet from EU Council President Donald Tusk.
According to London, Merkel had demanded a rewrite of the U.K.’s approach to the long-vexing Irish border problem that made a compromise “essentially impossible.”
The Downing Street official quoted Merkel as saying that a deal now looked “overwhelmingly unlikely,” and added that the Brexit talks were “close to breaking down.”
In Berlin, Merkel’s office said it would not comment “on such confidential discussions.” Johnson’s official spokesman also declined to say anything about the substance of the call.
But he told reporters the pair had a “frank exchange” — diplomatic speak for a disagreement.
A frustrated Tusk accused the U.K. of playing with “the future of Europe and the UK” with no clear plan of what the country wanted.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he found it “hard to disagree” with Tusk, stressing that Dublin would “not strike a deal at any cost.”
He said that during a 40-minute phone call with his Irish counterpart Leo Varadakar, Johnson had restated his wish of finding an agreement.
But Varadkar later told broadcaster RTE he thought it would be “very difficult to secure an agreement by next week.”
The two are expected to meet for talks later this week, according to the Press Association.
After meeting with Coveney, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said late Tuesday “efforts continue” to reach a Brexit deal with the U.K.
The U.K. has been trying for more than three years to find a way to deliver on the result of a 2016 referendum and end its almost five-decade involvement in the European bloc.
Riding a wave of frustrations with the saga, Johnson is threatening to leave at any cost — with or without a deal — on October 31.
There is growing focus on what happens if the Brexit talks are formally pronounced dead. A 2020 spending plan published by the Irish government included a €1.2 billion ($1.3 billion) relief fund based on the assumption that there will be no agreement.
On the markets, the pound has slipped to its lowest value against the euro in about a month.
Finding a way to maintain an open border between EU member the Republic of Ireland and the U.K. province of Northern Ireland, without keeping at least a part of the United Kingdom tied to EU trade rules, has long been the main sticking point in the Brexit talks.
David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament, warned that the EU “will not agree to a deal that undermines the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process or compromise the integrity of our single market,” as he sounded a pessimistic note following a meeting with Johnson in London.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement effectively created an invisible border between north and south, satisfying republicans who want a united Ireland and unionists who want to keep the status quo.
Johnson, who took over as prime minister from Theresa May in July, has been accused of political maneuvering before calling a snap general election to strengthen his position in parliament.
One source in Johnson’s office told The Spectator magazine the government will try to “do all sorts of things” to prevent another Brexit delay should negotiations really collapse.
On Tuesday, the government suspended the legislature from Wednesday until October 14, when Queen Elizabeth II will set out its legislative domestic agenda.
Scotland’s top civil court is due to rule Wednesday whether someone else — possibly a judge — could sign an extension request if Johnson fails to follow parliament’s order to ask for one if there is still no deal by October 19.
But should a delay be granted at the EU summit, Johnson will still campaign for a “no-deal” in any snap election, the Downing Street source told The Spectator.