A Tory ex-cabinet minister and Boris Johnson ally has criticised Downing Street briefings which have derailed Brexit negotiations and sparked a “racist” reaction from hardline Leavers.
Andrew Mitchell suggested the tone and character of “quasi-official briefings” about ongoing talks with the EU have been unhelpful for the government.
It came after an anonymous Number 10 source told a selected group of journalists that Angela Merkel was making it “impossible” for the UK to do a deal with the EU, after the German chancellor spoke to Johnson by telephone.
Dominic Cummings, who was described as “angry and desperate” by ex-Tory cabinet minister Amber Rudd, is suspected of being behind the missives, which led European Council President Donald Tusk to accuse Johnson of playing a “stupid blame game”.
Hardline Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage seized on the Merkel call briefing, while the Leave.EU campaign group he once fronted said the UK would not be “pushed around by a kraut” – a racist term about Germans.
Mitchell, an early backer of Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign, asked senior cabinet minister Michael Gove in the Commons: “Is he proud of the tone and character of quasi-official briefings and language coming out of Number 10?
“Does he think it is helpful?”
Gove replied: “He is right – I think it’s important for all of us in public life, whether we are appearing here at the despatch box or working for government ministers or for opposition figures, to use language which shows our respect for different points of view even as we hold robustly to our own.”
Chris Leslie urged Gove to distance himself from the “deliberate dog whistle” Number 10 briefing, which he suggested was designed to set up a battle between Brexiteers and Germany.
The Independent Group for Change MP said: “Can I urge the minister just to pause and reflect on the deliberate dog whistle briefing put out this morning by Number 10 against Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in the phone call apparently as reported between herself and the prime minister, which of course has then sparked a series of frankly racist attacks against the Germans from Leave.EU and others?
“This is an extremely dangerous course of the government to embark on and I want to hear right now the minister condemn it and distance himself from it.”
Gove said he was not “in on that telephone call” and described Merkel and her government as “good friends of this country”.
“I take this opportunity at this despatch box to entirely disassociate myself from any sort of racist or demeaning language towards Germany,” he added.
“They are our friends, our allies and a great country.”
Johnson meanwhile was reportedly forced to distance himself from the briefing amid criticism from members of his cabinet.
The Sun reported that the PM told ministers “you shouldn’t believe what you read, you should listen to what I say instead”.
It came as 19 Labour MPs made a desperate last-ditch bid to persuade the EU to strike a Brexit deal with the UK in time for the October 31 withdrawal deadline.
Brussels has rejected Johnson’s offer of a new deal because it would introduce customs checks on the island of Ireland.
But the Labour MPs co-signed letters to Tusk and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, urging them to “work night and day, if required, to agree a deal”.
The MPs urged the EU not to be “attracted to the option of further delay, which will solve nothing and add to public division and disenchantment with politics”.
And they stressed that a deal was very likely to be ratified by MPs, insisting “our votes will be decisive” signalling that the parliamentary deadlock will be ended.