Boris Johnson has been accused of deceiving voters after insisting Britain would not pay an expected £50bn Brexit “divorce bill” unless the EU started trade talks.
A senior EU source said the Foreign Secretary was hoodwinking the public about “the realities of Brexit” – insisting leaders were “united” in the view that the bill must be settled first.
The source turned Mr Johnson’s love of using head-scratching words against him, after he was strongly criticised for calling Jeremy Corbyn a “mutton-headed, old mugwump”.
“It appears that, yet again, Boris is trying to hornswoggle the British people about the realities of Brexit and the Article 50 process,” The Independent was told.
“The EU’s position has been clear – that a financial settlement must be agreed in phase one, before talks on a future trading relationship can begin. The EU 27 are united on this.
“The outstanding liabilities won't have to be paid before further talks – but the EU will insist there is an agreement on this before talks progress.”
To hornswoggle is to attempt to “get the better of someone by cheating or deception”, according to the dictionary.
The source spoke out after Mr Johnson again struck an aggressive pose ahead of the Brexit negotiations, insisting the EU would not succeed in forcing Britain to settle its liabilities upfront.
“If you’re saying that they want the money before they get any substantive talks then that is obviously not going to happen,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The Foreign Secretary also claimed Germany had blocked a deal before Christmas on the future rights of EU nationals living in the UK and of British expats across the EU.
“Alas, we made an offer by the way before Christmas that we would do a deal in advance of the negotiations, that was turned down, you may recall, by Germany,” he said.
The EU said no talks could take place before Article 50 was triggered, which happened on 29 March.
The latest war of words came as Angela Merkel turned her fire on unnamed British politicians still with “illusions” over the UK’s status after Brexit.
The German Chancellor told cheering Bundestag members that Britain would become a “third-party state” after its departure and could not expect to enjoy the same rights as remaining nations.
“I have to say this clearly here because I get the feeling that some people in Britain continue to work under illusions, and that is a waste of time,” Ms Merkel said.
At the weekend, the EU’s 27 political leaders will agree the bloc’s negotiating position for the Brexit talks – reaffirming their determination to settle the divorce bill first.
“Nothing does more to unify the EU 27 more than an intervention from Boris. It’s good to have him back,” the source added.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman declined to back her Foreign Secretary’s stance, saying only: “The Prime Minister set out the Government's position in the Article 50 letter. The Article 50 letter was clear on that.”
In that letter, Ms May said she was ready to “discuss how we determine a fair settlement of the UK's rights and obligations as a departing member state”.