Sky News understands the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has privately told at least four EU ambassadors that he supports freedom of movement – despite the Government’s hard stance on Brexit.
The high-ranking diplomats were speaking under the Chatham House rule, which allows their comments to be reported, but not directly attributed.
One ambassador said: “(Boris Johnson) told us he was personally in favour of it, but he said that Britain had been more affected by free movement of people than other EU member states.”
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Another said the Foreign Secretary was even more forthcoming, saying: “He did say he was personally in favour of free movement, as it corresponds to his own beliefs. But he said it wasn’t government policy.”
Corroborating the remarks, an ambassador for a third country said that he was “shocked” by the Government’s shambolic diplomacy.
He said: “Boris Johnson has been openly telling us that he is personally in favour of free movement.”
In a separate conversation yet another ambassador, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Yes, he told us at an ambassadors’ luncheon.”
Jonathan Lis, deputy director of the pro-single market think tank British Influence said: “We are interested to learn that Boris Johnson supports free movement of people and is prepared to tell his negotiating partners as much – even though this appears to go against his public statements as Foreign Secretary, as well as the Government’s self-declared red line.
“Of course, continued membership of the EEA would allow for single market access with some discretion over free movement – or if the Government agrees with the Foreign Secretary, full free movement as now.”
In response to the accusations, a spokesman for the Foreign Secretary said: “Boris said what he has said many times before – he is pro-immigration but wants to take back control to limit numbers.
“He did not say he supported freedom of movement and challenges anyone to show proof that he ever said that.”
The remarks he is accused of are incendiary as they seem to suggest the UK’s top diplomat – and leading Leave campaigner – is taking one position in private and a directly contradictory stance in public.
Two weeks ago the Foreign Secretary was quoted in the Czech newspaper Hospodarske noviny as saying it was “b******s” that freedom of movement was a fundamental principle of the European Union.
“It is stupid to say that freedom of movement is a fundamental right. It’s something that has been acquired by a series of decisions by the courts,” he said.
“And everyone now has in his head that every human being has a fundamental, God-given right to go and move wherever he wants. But it is not.”
The European Parliament describes the freedom of movement and residence for persons in the EU as the “cornerstone of Union membership”, which was established by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992.
But Prime Minister Theresa May has set the Government on course to prioritise controlling immigration above continued membership of the single market.
At the Conservative Party Conference in October, she said: “We have voted to leave the European Union and become a fully independent, sovereign country. We will do what independent, sovereign countries do – decide for ourselves how we control immigration.”
The Cabinet has been under strict instructions not to deviate from the pre-Article 50 script that “Brexit means Brexit” and the Government will “make a success of it”.
So the damning testimony of four EU diplomats appears to suggest Boris Johnson – who attacked the principles of freedom of movement on the referendum campaign trail – is deviating from collective responsibility in private.
A fifth ambassador was asked to corroborate the testimony of his EU colleagues and said he had not heard Mr Johnson saying those words, but was withering in his criticism.
“Johnson has no credibility with the ambassadors – they don’t care what he says,” he said.