Tory minister asked six times whether Boris Johnson has offered anything new to the EU

Rishi Sunak was asked by Andrew Neil about the substance of Boris Johnson's negotiations with the EU

Rishi Sunak was asked by Andrew Neil about the substance of Boris Johnson's negotiations with the EU. Picture: BBC - Credit: BBC

A Tory minister grilled on the new Andrew Neil show was asked six times about the UK's proposals on the Irish backstop with the EU - and couldn't give a straight reply.

Rishi Sunak, chief secretary to the treasury and introduced as a "rising star" of the party, was unable to deflect accusations from the EU that the UK government has brought absolutely no proposals to the negotiating table.

EU diplomats have already reportedly complained that diplomat David Frost, the prime minister's EU "sherpa" is "playing for time".

Asked by Neil if Johnson had submitted alternative arrangements to the backstop, Sunak at first said: "Are negotiations taking place? Absolutely," adding that David Frost was "having those negotiations" right now.

But that answer didn't satisfy the interviewer who again asked if any alternative had been submitted. "Because if you haven't, they're not real negotiations," said Neil. "You need to put to Brussels what it is you want other than the backstop. Now have you submitted that?"

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Sunak said: "The government has a range of options on alternative arrangements for the backstop, some of those are already in the public domain ..."

Once again, Neil had to ask the question. But then Sunak changed tack, claiming it was not for him to make public comments about "the privacy of those negotiations" and tried to say that Neil had asked about whether alternative arrangements exist.

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"No, no, I didn't ask that," said Neil. "I can tell you, because the Irish foreign minister has said today that Britain has submitted nothing new. Nothing new. Why?"

Sunak was left repeating the fact that Frost is currently talking to them "about this very point".

Asked why nothing had been submitted, Sunak repeated his point about it being a "private negotiation", and added that alternative arrangements "clearly do exist".

He continued: "They are in the public domain, they have been well diligenced and researched by many experts - not political - who are very clear that you can have customs arrangements across the Northern Irish border that do not involve physical checks. That point is well proven."

Neil asked, again. "What I'm trying to get out of you is, 42 days after the prime minister became prime minister, has he made a formal submission of the British government's position? Because if he hasn't, what's he been doing? Has he just been making more models of buses?"

In addition to the comments of Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, EU diplomats have also reportedly complained that no new proposals are coming from the British side.

"That is because these semi-negotiations are a bluff," one EU diplomat told Bloomberg on Wednesday. "The British don't have alternative arrangements, they are playing for time."

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