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Is David Frost making empty threats about tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol?

The chaos of triggering Article 16 may be easier for Boris Johnson to survive than having to explain the widening gulf between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

By Stephen Bush

I’ll scream and scream until I’m sick! That’s what David Frost, the government’s de facto Brexit Secretary, warned the European Union in his conference speech today – or words to that effect.

He is warning that the Northern Ireland protocol is not working and that the United Kingdom is contemplating triggering Article 16, essentially exiting the protocol and with it sparking an almighty row about international law and a potential trade war. But part of the problem is that most of the EU27 don’t regard the threat as serious (and, indeed, most EU member states have no appetite to reopen the question of the Irish border at all, as the only solution other than the protocol would be something that took a big bite into the single market and customs union, as Theresa May’s backstop did).

Are they right? On the one hand, this isn’t the first or even the second time David Frost has warned that the protocol isn’t working and that the British government could trigger Article 16, and it hasn’t done it yet. There’s a “but” coming, though. Downing Street’s objection to the Northern Ireland protocol is genuine, and the fuel crisis may have changed the balance of opinion within the government about the risks or otherwise of triggering the protocol.

Why? Because, although it has largely gone unnoticed, a subplot of the HGV driver shortage and the resulting fuel crisis is that the shortages haven’t affected Northern Ireland, because the protocol means Northern Ireland essentially has a different Brexit deal from the rest of the United Kingdom. Rightly or wrongly, Labour ministers believe that condemning the Brexit deal rather than Brexit itself will allow them to attack the government without being seen as Brexit wreckers. From the government’s perspective, the chaos that would arise from triggering Article 16 may be easier to survive politically than having to explain the widening gulf emerging between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as the former remains in the EU de facto if not de jure, while the latter’s promised “British renaissance” fails to arrive.

[see also: Boris Johnson argues the pain of shortages is worth it – is it?]

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