French President Emmanuel Macron had branded Boris Johnson a “clown” in charge of a “circus”, amid worsening relations sparked by the migrant crisis, according to a French newspaper.
Le Canard Enchaine reported on comments made by Mr Macron on a visit to Croatia last Wednesday – hours after 27 people drowned in the Channel.
According to the outlet, he said: “BoJo talks to me, full speed, everything’s going well.
“We have grown-up conversations, but he strikes me before and after as having an inelegant way about him. It’s always the same circus.”
The president reportedly added: “It’s sad to see such a great country, with which we could do so much, led by a clown.”
The disparaging speech comes after Number 10 insisted that Mr Johnson and Mr Macron have a close “working relationship”.
The prime minister’s official spokesman was asked about the relationship between the two, following the former French ambassador Sylvie Bermann joking on Times Radio that ties had not been as bad since Waterloo.
It follows a diplomatic spat over how best to tackle the Channel migrant crisis.
Downing Street has continued to insist a returns agreement, as set out by Mr Johnson in a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron last week that infuriated Paris, would be the “single biggest deterrent” to migrants attempting the sea journey.
France was so enraged by the move that it withdrew the UK’s invitation to join weekend talks with other European ministers about how to stem the flow of people crossing the Dover strait.
A returns agreement with the European Union would allow the UK to send people back to the member state where their journey had originated from, such as France or elsewhere, if their asylum claims are rejected after arriving in Britain.
London pushed for such an agreement during the Brexit talks but Brussels turned the offer down.
Asked if Mr Johnson and Mr Macron were friends, the PM’s spokesman said: “The prime minister’s been asked about this on a number of occasions and has talked about his close relationship… working relationship with President Macron.”
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said she was “surprised” and “disappointed” by Mr Macron’s comments.
Speaking on ITV’s Peston programme, Ms Coffey said: “I’m surprised to hear that and disappointed, openly.
“I’m sure that we can continue to try and work together to tackle this.
“But the prime minister wrote formerly to the President last week and… I hope that we’ll get a formal response back.”
She added: “I’m conscious that we have a shared mission in trying to make sure that the people-smuggling gangs are really brought to justice.”
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Earlier on Wednesday, Home Secretary Priti Patel tabled a series of amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill – the proposed reforms to asylum and immigration laws currently going through parliament.
These included a legal exemption to protect lifeboat crews and other organisations from being prosecuted for rescuing migrants in the Channel.
The Bill would make it a criminal offence to help an asylum seeker gain entry to the UK.
But a clause has now been added which says someone cannot be prosecuted for acts carried out on behalf of, or co-ordinated by, the coastguard and there is a defence by demonstrating those brought ashore had been in “danger or distress at sea”.
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