Robert Peston

Was Boris Johnson’s blunt letter to the French a mistake?

Was Boris Johnson’s blunt letter to the French a mistake?
Boris Johnson (Photo: Getty)
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Boris Johnson may well be right that the best deterrent to migrants and refugees crossing the channel in flimsy, life-endangering dinghies would be for the UK and France to agree a ‘bilateral readmissions agreement to allow all illegal migrants who cross the Channel to be returned’.

The question is whether he was well advised – or advised at all – to put that blunt request in a letter to the French president that he immediately put in the public domain via Twitter.

The French government appears to have been blindsided and to have taken immediate offence. And Macron’s nose also seems to have been put out of joint by Johnson’s claim that France has made it a priority to negotiate a long-term ‘systematic [migrant] returns agreement’ between the whole EU and the UK, when France takes the presidency of the EU council.

You’ll have noticed that the French in response, or perhaps in retaliation, have disinvited the UK’s home secretary Priti Patel from a meeting of European home and interior ministers, that is being convened on Sunday to discuss the migrant crisis.

The French interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, in a remarkable statement, said: ‘We consider the British prime minister’s public letter unacceptable and counter to our discussions between partners.’

This kind of spat between two rich European countries is unedifying when the lives of desperate people are at risk. Many will say France has overreacted.

But according to current and former officials, Johnson should have known that in publishing his request before holding private talks between ambassadors, officials and ministers, President Macron would see him as engaging in Trumpian grandstanding, an attempt to embarrass and pressurise France.

‘Publishing the letter on Twitter looks a bit crass’, said one.

Another said: ‘Normally someone in Downing Street would have said to a prime minister “let’s prepare the ground through back channels” rather than going public in this way.’

This mess highlights again whether there is any official in Downing Street or minister with the authority to dissuade the Prime Minister from a course of action that he is determined to follow – whether the normal checks and balances in cabinet government are working effectively.

But more importantly it will be seen as a tragedy by many that rather than working together to save the lives of vulnerable people who have often fled persecution and terror, France and the UK are once again posturing about the right way to negotiate.

Written byRobert Peston

Robert Peston is Political Editor of ITV News and host of the weekly political discussion show Peston. His articles originally appeared on his ITV News blog.

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