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11 October 2021

Is Boris Johnson’s government fighting too many battles?

There’s already a cost of living crisis, and risking more trade barriers between the UK and EU now could make things worse.

By Stephen Bush

The European Union and the United Kingdom have inched closer to a full-blown trade war after David Frost, the de facto Brexit secretary, insisted that the Northern Ireland protocol must be renegotiated to exclude the European Court of Justice from the accord. 

It comes after the European Commission proposed a series of concessions to how the protocol works to facilitate easier trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but one which keeps the European Court of Justice’s role as an arbiter. 

The essential difficulty is that to maintain the frictionless border on the island of Ireland, you’d either need to hive Ireland off from the single market (unacceptable to Ireland and indeed the majority of the other 26 nations of the EU), keep the UK as a whole in the regulatory orbit of the EU as far as food, phytosanitary standards and most goods are concerned (unacceptable to the majority of Conservative MPs), or thicken the existing border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (unacceptable to unionists and now apparently to the British government). 

But if you have Northern Ireland effectively in the single market, then, from the perspective of most member states, that means you have to have the single market’s supreme authority, the European Court of Justice, as the referee. The difficulty for the British government is that although Article 16, which allows either party to suspend the protocol, is quite broad, it is hard to see how any court would accept that being subject to the European Court of Justice can be said to create “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist”. 

That means any attempt to use Article 16 means further barriers to trade between the EU and the UK. Is the UK bluffing? Maybe, maybe not. But regardless the British government is taking a pretty big bet that increasing pressures on the cost of living won’t cause permanent damage to the government, politically. The UK’s emissions targets mean a range of measures that will hit households in their wallets (Tim Ross reveals the details here), while Kraft Heinz’s CEO, Miguel Patricio has warned that higher food prices are here to stay.

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It’s true to say that one consequence of the UK’s electoral realignment is that a very large part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition is relatively insulated from pressures in the labour market. But “a very large part” isn’t the same as all, and the government may be about to find out that it is fighting a war on too many fronts.