UK PM's adviser shrugs off concerns about Brexit tensions
A senior adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has dismissed concerns that politicians' heated rhetoric over Brexit is polarizing society, telling supporters that it isn't surprising that people are upset about the country's failure to leave the European Union.
The prime minister has been accused of whipping up divisions with his charged language about Brexit opponents in the House of Commons this week. But adviser Dominic Cummings told backers at a book launch that the only way to calm tensions over Brexit is for British lawmakers to respect the result of the 2016 referendum and take the country out of the European Union.
Cummings claimed that Britain's current political chaos is "a walk in the park" compared with the referendum campaign in which the country narrowly voted to leave the EU. Three years later, Britain and its politicians remain bitterly divided over how, or even whether, to leave the 28-nation bloc.
"We are enjoying this," said Cummings, one of the architects of the 2016 "leave" campaign. "We are going to leave and we are going to win."
In a raucous, ill-tempered parliamentary debate Wednesday, Johnson argued that he is safeguarding the will of the public against the interests of the political establishment, which wants to remain in the EU.
He said postponing the country's departure would "betray" the people, referred to an opposition law ordering a Brexit delay as the "Surrender Act" and brushed off concerns that his forceful language might endanger legislators as "humbug."
Bishops at the Church of England on Friday appealed for calm amid the growing acrimony.
"We should speak to others with respect," the bishops said in a statement. "And we should also listen ... We should not denigrate, patronize or ignore the honest views of fellow citizens, but seek to respect their opinions, their participation in society, and their votes."
Johnson, a Conservative, took power two months ago with a "do-or-die" promise that Britain will leave the EU on the scheduled date of Oct. 31, with or without a divorce deal cushioning the economic consequences. His foes in Parliament are determined to avoid a no-deal exit, which economists say would disrupt trade with the EU and plunge Britain into recession.
Concerns abound over how the country would adjust to the sudden shock. Britain's government watchdog says there is still a "significant amount" of work to do to ensure the country has an adequate supply of medical drugs in case of a no-deal Brexit.
The National Audit Office said additional shipping capacity chartered by the U.K. for sending goods across the English Channel might not be operational until the end of November — one month after the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline. Of the more than 12,300 medicines licensed in the U.K., about 7,000 arrive from or via the EU, mostly across the Channel.
Labour legislator Meg Hillier, who chairs a committee overseeing the audit office, called the findings "deeply concerning."
Johnson insists he wants to strike a deal, but is demanding significant changes to the withdrawal agreement negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May. That deal was rejected three times by Britain's Parliament, prompting May to resign.
Johnson says good progress is being made in talks, which continued Friday with a meeting between U.K. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and EU negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels.
The EU, however, says it is still waiting for concrete proposals from Britain on maintaining an open border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland — the key sticking point to a deal.
The head of the European Union's executive Commission said a no-deal Brexit would be a "catastrophe for the United Kingdom and the European continent" — but it would be Britain's fault.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was quoted Friday as telling German daily Augsburger Allgemeine that he and Barnier were doing everything they can to secure an agreement.
"If in the end that doesn't succeed, the responsibility for this lies on the British side alone," he said.
That view appears to be widely shared. In Germany, a poll published Friday by ZDF public television found that 81% of respondents believed Britain would be mainly to blame for a no-deal Brexit at the end of October, with only 10% pointing the finger at the EU.
It said 15% favoured making additional concessions to Britain to prevent no-deal but 77% were against further concessions. The poll of 1,325 people, which the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen agency conducted by telephone between Tuesday and Thursday, gave a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
In a bid to prevent a no-deal Brexit, Johnson's political opponents in Parliament have passed a law compelling the government to ask the EU for a delay to the U.K.'s exit if no deal has been struck by late October. Johnson is adamant he won't do that — but also says he will comply with the law.
A former Conservative prime minister, John Major, said he feared the government would use constitutional trickery to get around the legislation by suspending it until after the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline.
He said that would be "political chicanery that no one should ever forgive or forget."
On Friday, British International Development Secretary Alok Sharma refused to say whether the Cabinet had discussed such a tactic.
"We are absolutely going to comply with the law, we are working incredibly hard to get a deal and we will be leaving on Oct. 31," he said.