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8 October 2019

Cabinet unease grows over No 10 memo on Brexit threats

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith’s criticism of Downing Street’s threats reflects deeper worries. 

By Patrick Maguire

Not every cabinet minister is entirely comfortable with the slash-and-burn briefing issued to the Spectator by a Downing Street source, widely assumed to be Dominic Cummings, last night. But only Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has been moved to air his concerns in public. 

In a pointed tweet this afternoon, Smith flatly rejected the suggestion that the UK would stop sharing intelligence with the EU27 in the event that Brussels “tries to keep Britain in against the will of its government”. He wrote: “I am clear that any threat on withdrawing security cooperation with Ireland is unacceptable. This is not in the interest of NI or the Union.”

Smith has emerged as the loudest moderating voice within cabinet: he publicly disowned plans for new customs posts near the Irish border last week, and has taken precisely the opposite approach to relations with Dublin than Cummings. Given the sensitivities of his brief and well-publicised fears of an outbreak of dissident republican violence in a no-deal scenario, it is no surprise to hear him speak out here.

But his comments also speak to a much bigger worry on Whitehall. From the outset of the Brexit process, UK ministers have consoled themselves with the existence of one trump card: Britain’s prowess as a security power. Senior government sources complain that Cummings and Steve Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, believe they can leverage the threat of withdrawing from intelligence-sharing to their advantage in negotiations.

“It’s their big pet project,” complains one, “but all it is doing is entrenching ill will.” And, as another Whitehall official points out, the security relationship is a two-way street. Dublin, for instance, has always maintained that it is the UK that is in need of their intelligence when it comes to policing the post-Brexit border, for it is on the Northern Irish side of the frontier that any violence is likely to erupt. “It’s a major misunderstanding,” says a government source. The worry for cooler heads in government is that it has become the entire basis of a doomed negotiation strategy.

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