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Boris Johnson heads to Dublin amid fears of more resignations

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Heather Stewart, Rajeev Syal and Lisa O'Carroll
Boris Johnson wearing a suit and tie: When he returns from Dublin, Boris Johnson is expected to make a second bid to trigger a general election. © Getty Images When he returns from Dublin, Boris Johnson is expected to make a second bid to trigger a general election.

Boris Johnson will fly to Dublin to meet the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, on Monday, as he battles to show that his Brexit plan remains on track after Amber Rudd dramatically quit the cabinet.

Against a backdrop of mounting disquiet inside government at Johnson’s gung-ho approach and the combative style of his chief strategist Dominic Cummings, the British prime minister hopes to demonstrate that he is serious about negotiating a fresh Brexit deal.

When he returns from Dublin later on Monday, Johnson is expected to make a second bid to trigger a 15 October general election by asking MPs to support a motion tabled under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

But he is almost certain to be rebuffed for a second time, after opposition leaders agreed on Friday to reject a snap poll until a no-deal Brexit has been definitively avoided. The backbench bill aimed at blocking no deal is expected to receive royal assent on Monday.

Rudd’s abrupt departure followed that of the prime minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, who resigned last week after 21 rebels lost the Conservative whip for supporting what Downing Street calls “Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill”.

Rudd’s resignation on Saturday evening sparked fears of a domino effect, with other Tory moderates following suit.

DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 08: An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar holds a press conference after inspecting the newly installed border port infrastructure checkpoints at Dublin port on September 8, 2019 in Dublin, Ireland. The Irish government has installed the infrastructure in the case of a no deal Brexit. The Taoiseach will meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Dublin tomorrow. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images) © 2019 Getty Images DUBLIN, IRELAND - SEPTEMBER 08: An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar holds a press conference after inspecting the newly installed border port infrastructure checkpoints at Dublin port on September 8, 2019 in Dublin, Ireland. The Irish government has installed the infrastructure in the case of a no deal Brexit. The Taoiseach will meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Dublin tomorrow. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Since tendering her resignation, Rudd has been approached by three cabinet ministers and nine junior ministers who have expressed concern about the direction of the government, a friend said, adding that she would not be at all surprised if there were more resignations.

Her final conversation with the PM took place on Saturday evening, when she called him 10 minutes before an article revealing her resignation was due to be launched online. An agitated Johnson pleaded with her to reconsider.

“The PM wanted to know why she hadn’t told him first. But it is obvious why and she told him: ‘Boris, you have some pretty brutal advisers,’” a Rudd aide said.

Downing Street launched a shoring-up operation, with Johnson himself speaking to key potential waverers. Cabinet ministers known to have anxieties, including Matt Hancock, Julian Smith and Robert Buckland, made clear on Sunday they intended to remain in the government.

Hancock has been lobbying for the whip to be restored to the rebels, according to friends, while Buckland, the justice secretary, tweeted that he had spoken to the prime minister “regarding the importance of the Rule of Law, which I as Lord Chancellor have taken an oath to uphold”.

A view of Dublin Port in Ireland where Ireland's Taoiseach, prime minister, Leo Varadkar visited on September 8, 2019, to view Brexit infrastructure and facilities. - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet Leo Varadkar in Ireland tomorrow, after claiming that progress in talks on Brexit that have become focussed on the Irish border. (Photo by PAUL FAITH / AFP)        (Photo credit should read PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images) A view of Dublin Port in Ireland where Ireland's Taoiseach, prime minister, Leo Varadkar visited on September 8, 2019, to view Brexit infrastructure and facilities. - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet Leo Varadkar in Ireland tomorrow, after claiming that progress in talks on Brexit that have become focussed on the Irish border. (Photo by PAUL FAITH / AFP) (Photo credit should read PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)

Johnson has insisted he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit, as the backbench law passed last week would oblige him to do if he has not agreed a deal that can pass through parliament by 19 October.

On Sunday, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, was asked how the government intended to proceed. He appeared to suggest Downing Street would seek to find some way around the legislation.

“We will adhere to the law but also this is such a bad piece of legislation … we will also want to test to the limit what it does actually lawfully require. We will look very carefully at the implications and our interpretation of it,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

The crossbench rebel alliance that drafted the bill deliberately left what they believe will be sufficient time between 19 October and Brexit day at the end of the month for the government to be challenged in the courts if it refuses to act.

But No 10 remains convinced that outside the Westminster bubble, voters will see Johnson as determinedly trying to deliver Brexit in the face of a cantankerous political establishment.

“It feels like we’re suffering body blow after body blow in Westminster, but they’re really resolute about the whole thing,” said one senior Tory.

Former justice secretary David Gauke warned last week that moderate voters would be repelled by what he called a “Farage-lite” approach.

But another government insider said they had been reassured by Downing Street in recent days that private polling shows even voters in constituencies where moderate Conservative MPs have been chucked out of the party in recent days are being won over by the message of increased funds for the NHS and schools.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (centre right) and European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee (second left) with port and customs officials during a visit to new physical infrastructure at Dublin Port which has been put in place to meet the requirements for customs, SPS and health checks on consignments of goods imported from or transiting the UK. (Photo by Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images) © PA Wire/PA Images Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (centre right) and European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee (second left) with port and customs officials during a visit to new physical infrastructure at Dublin Port which has been put in place to meet the requirements for customs, SPS and health checks on consignments of goods imported from or transiting the UK. (Photo by Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images)

In Dublin on Monday, Johnson will be under pressure to spell out more details of how his government intends to replace what he has called the “anti-democratic” backstop for the Irish border.

He has suggested an all-Ireland system of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on agricultural products might provide part of the solution – but Varadkar has pointed out such issues only account for about 30% of border checks.

“It’s not enough on its own. We would need a single Irish economic zone, or whatever you would like to call it, to cover more than agriculture and food,” Varadkar said on Friday.

That approach would be anathema to the Democratic Unionist party. It was its members objection to border checks in the Irish Sea that helped push Theresa May towards reworking the backstop to cover the UK as a whole.

Varadkar and his deputy, Simon Coveney, have spent the last two days stressing the backstop is about normal life on the border, as well as trade in agriculture and other goods.

“The Irish government and state will strain every sinew to prevent that [a return to violence] but peace and reconciliation is about much more than a policing response, it’s about community relationships, it’s about providing confidence and stability to a deeply divided society,” Coveney told an audience on Friday night that included Michael Gove.

Varadkar described the meeting with Johnson as “an opportunity to establish a relationship to see what common ground might exist”.

The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, warned the government against going back on the detailed commitments May made in the 2017 December agreement to protect the integrity of the Good Friday agreement.

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