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14 June 2022

Boris Johnson may live to regret picking a fight over the Northern Ireland protocol

Voters have more pressing concerns on their minds than squabbles with the EU over Brexit.

By Freddie Hayward

The government has published plans to override the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement and introduce measures designed to ease trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In response the EU has threatened to restart legal proceedings against the UK government and reaffirmed that it will not renegotiate the protocol, which in effect puts a border in the Irish sea to avoid having one on the island of Ireland.

The government argues that the protocol is threatening the Good Friday Agreement because the DUP is refusing to re-join the Northern Irish Executive without changes to it. One key question hanging over the announcement is why the government has chosen to override the protocol rather than trigger Article 16 of it, which allows the UK to unilaterally impose safeguards if the protocol is deemed to lead to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”. One government source tells me their concern is that triggering Article 16 would only prolong the process and deepen uncertainty for businesses. On the other hand, activating Article 16 would keep the government within the bounds of the law.

If reducing uncertainty for businesses by overriding an international treaty doesn’t cut it for you, then consider that the Prime Minister needs to consolidate support among his MPs on the right of the Conservative Party. Indeed, the European Research Group is said to have been consulted on key sections of yesterday’s bill. Boris Johnson must appease his MPs’ demand to protect the sovereignty of the whole UK – hence proposals to greatly reduce the role of the European Court of Justice. The problem with courting the support of the Brexiteers is that it makes Johnson vulnerable to the other side of his party. It’s an important difference between the rebellion against Johnson’s leadership compared with that against Theresa May’s: rather than a group of like-minded MPs deposing May over Brexit, Johnson’s critics hail from all sides of the party.

That means the bill will have a tough time getting through parliament, where a sizeable rebellion of Tory backbenchers could threaten the legislation and the Lords could vote it down – not least, as the Hansard Society has noted, to limit the wide-ranging powers the bill gives to ministers to abandon or rewrite the protocol themselves.

“We could be faced with the prospect of bitter rows over Europe, a minority of Conservative MPs trying to prevent a reckless course of action while Johnson appeals to the right and is encouraged to deploy exceptional measures against his opponents,” David Gauke writes in his column this week. “It could all soon start to feel like the Brexit wars of autumn 2019 again. This, I suppose, may give Johnson – if few others – some encouragement.”

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That may be the case but another, more important, difference with 2019 is the severity of the cost-of-living crisis. Any unilateral action from the government is set to trigger an economic backlash from the EU. Tariffs on British goods would hurt the UK economy, which is facing the perilous prospect of recession. Johnson won in 2019 with the promise to “Get Brexit Done”. Yet with the cost of living at the forefront of voters’ minds and the whole point of “Get Brexit Done” being to, you know, get Brexit done, voters may not be as supportive during a prolonged and economically brutal battle with the EU as they were when an end to Brexit was supposedly in sight.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?]

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