Johnson heckler says he was provoked by shutdown of parliament

Matthew Weaver
Downing Street has no plans to publish proposals despite chance of border compromise. Downing Street has played down the prospect of an early breakthrough in Brexit talks despite hopes of a compromise on the Irish backstop, as Boris Johnson prepares to meet the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker. There has been a renewed drive in No 10 for an agreement since parliamentarians passed a law aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit on 31 October and twice rejected Johnson’s demand for a snap general election. However the government has no plans to publish any detailed written proposals as the prime minister seeks to avoid Theresa May’s fate of having her carefully constructed compromise shot down publicly by party colleagues. Downing Street believes little compromise will be forthcoming from the EU side before the crucial European council summit on 17 October – and it plans to blame rebel parliamentarians if it does not materialise. A Downing Street source said: “There’s no way they’re going to move yet – it’s going to be the 17th before we get any flash of light: but [Jeremy] Corbyn and his surrender bill has significantly diminished the chance of getting a deal.” Efforts are focused on finding a way to allow customs and other checks to take place away from the Irish border, so that Northern Ireland can leave the EU customs union along with the rest of the UK. In return, Northern Ireland would remain within the EU’s regulatory orbit in key areas, including agriculture, a proposal Johnson has already signalled publicly. Johnson hopes the Democratic Unionist party can be won over to some form of compromise, despite its previous objections to a border of any kind down the Irish Sea. The party’s leader, Arlene Foster, insisted on Friday that the UK “must leave as one nation”, after a report in the Times suggested her party’s stance was softening. The government hopes that once power-sharing is restored the Stormont assembly could also form part of a solution by giving democratic consent to any arrangements that keep Northern Ireland aligned with the EU. But Ireland’s deputy prime minister cast doubt on that proposal on Friday. “There is certainly a concern at an EU level that a devolved institution in Northern Ireland could have a veto over how the single market operates, or a border on the single market operates, so it’s not as straightforward as some people are suggesting,” Simon Coveney said after a two-day party “think-in” in Cork. Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach, said there was “ongoing contact with the DUP” and other parties in Northern Ireland and it is believed further talks at government level are scheduled next week. But he said he was not aware of any change in the unionists’ position over their refusal to accept any checks in the Irish Sea as a means of keeping the Irish border invisible. Monday’s talks between Johnson and Juncker will take place at a lunch in the European commission president’s home country, where he was prime minister for 18 years. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who recently called for “concrete proposals from Downing Street”, will join the two leaders. Johnson will then hold talks with the current prime minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel. EU sources suggested Johnson had sought to avoid a meeting in Brussels for fear of giving the impression that he was begging for concessions. A European commission spokeswoman said the location had been chosen by “common accord” and that it would allow Juncker the benefit of going straight from the talks to Strasbourg, where the European parliament is sitting next week. She said the meeting was “taking place at a neutral location, which [we] will not disclose”. Johnson’s communications team is understood to believe that May undermined herself in the public eye by making dashes to Brussels to seek movement in the negotiation. EU officials are concerned about the lack of any detailed proposals from the UK side, despite early goodwill built up by Johnson in a series of one-to-one meetings with leaders. They have also been watching the tumult in parliament over recent days. Johnson’s government was rocked this week by the Scottish court judgment that his suspension of parliament was illegal, and he was heckled at a speech in Rotherham on Friday. But Johnson’s advisers believe that despite the upheaval at Westminster, their domestic agenda – including increasing resources for schools and police – is beginning to register with voters in focus groups and polling. Johnson is expected to switch the focus to law and order next week, as he continues to announce manifesto-ready pledges, in the expectation that MPs will eventually have to succumb to his desire for a general election, rather than allow him to continue to govern without a majority.

A man who interrupted Boris Johnson during a speech in Rotherham has said he felt compelled to heckle the prime minister over the suspension of parliament.

Ben Gilchrist, 41, the deputy chief executive of a Manchester charity, forced Johnson to break off from a speech about regional devolution when he began heckling him about the prorogation.

“He got me going when he started talking about how he valued local representation. So I jumped to my feet and tried to make my way towards him,” Gilchrist told the Guardian after being ejected from the Convention of the North at the Magna Science Adventure Centre.

Johnson had been talking about giving local people the power to sort out what mattered to them when Gilchrist yelled: “Like our MPs, Boris? Maybe get back to parliament.”

Johnson responded by saying: “I’m all in favour of our MPs.”

Gilchrist then said: “Why are you not with them in parliament sorting out the mess that you created?”

As he was removed from the hall, Gilchrist shouted: “Why don’t you sort it out, Boris?”

Later Johnson said: “Whatever the shenanigans that may be going on at Westminster, we will get on with delivering our agenda and preparing to take this country out of the EU on October 31st.”

He jokingly added: “To the gentlemen who left prematurely, not necessarily under his own steam, that is the answer to his question.”

Johnson’s response further angered Gilchrist. He told the Guardian: “The idea that it’s just ‘shenanigans’ is ridiculous. That’s our democracy. That’s why I’m so incensed. They think they can joke their way through this and cover it over with some sort of veneer of representing the people.

“But that’s what our MPs are elected to do, that’s why they should be in there. There will not be sufficient time to debate this properly or hold the government to account and he’s had deliberately gone about setting up that scenario.”

Related: What can Boris Johnson expect from the EU in latest Brexit talks?

Gilchrist said he was not a member of any political party and he was not harmed by the security guards who dragged him out of the venue.

He said: “Two security guys very quickly came either side of me and started dragging me backwards under my arms. They were just doing their job and they didn’t hurt me. They tried to push me out of the nearest fire escape, which wouldn’t open. So we had to go to the next exit.”

Gilchrist’s employer, which he did not want to name, helps voluntary groups with fundraising. He said: “I attend a lot of devolution-focused events because my job is trying to champion people’s voices.”

He added: “I looked like a delegate because I was a delegate. But it was a personal reaction rather than a planned, organisational approach. I was thinking that if I get anywhere near a minister I would raise my voice. It was not fully intentional but I had prepared myself.”

Earlier Johnson was confronted by a voter in Doncaster who accused him of telling fairytales about public spending and Brexit.

Speaking in Doncaster market, the woman told Johnson: “People have died because of austerity. And then you’ve got the cheek to come here and tell us austerity is over and it’s all good now, we’re going to leave the EU and everything is going to be great. It’s just a fairytale.”