The government’s plans to override the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit deal came closer to becoming law last night after receiving initial approval from MPs. The government says the bill is necessary to restore Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government – and thus protect the Good Friday Agreement – because excessive customs paperwork and bureaucracy created by the protocol caused the Democratic Unionist Party to leave the executive.
The government could instead have triggered Article 16 of the protocol, which in effect puts the UK’s border with the EU in the Irish sea to avoid having one on the island of Ireland. Doing this would have enabled the government to take unilateral measures to reduce bureaucracy, and would have avoided breaking international law, as the bill appears to do. The government says that using Article 16, however, would only lead to legal wrangling and wouldn’t fix the fundamental issues with the protocol. Or, as one senior Tory MP put it to me, more negotiations would be “too bothersome and would require the PM to do some actual work”.
The fact that the government won’t use the Article 16 route suggests the bill is a ploy to leverage negotiations with the EU. If that’s the case, the government has overplayed its hand. The trust required to conduct that negotiation has been shot through by the government’s repeated threats to ditch the protocol. In response to the government’s bill, the EU official in charge of negotiations, Maroš Šefčovič, said: “This UK bill is extremely damaging to mutual trust and respect between the EU and the UK. It has created deep uncertainty and casts a shadow over our overall co-operation.” Even if the government did override the protocol, the UK’s border with the EU isn’t going away. Negotiations will always be necessary. But now Boris Johnson, or any future prime minister, will have to conduct them having embittered their much richer, more powerful opponent.
This makes it probable that the bill is self-interested. When Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, was asked why she was introducing the bill, she replied: “Because I’m a patriot and a democrat.” Such bleeding-heart rhetoric won’t dispel the perception that Truss’s bill, as the Tory MP Simon Hoare put it, is a “muscle flex for a future leadership bid”. Truss campaigned to Remain in the 2016 referendum and will need to burnish her Brexiteer credentials before a leadership campaign.
What about the Prime Minister? Weakened from the confidence vote and beholden to his Brexiteer MPs, Johnson needs to distract from his domestic woes and unite his party behind him. But if the government’s intention is simply to leverage negotiations while playing to the right of the Conservative Party, then it will have to retreat from its position at some point. And that won’t be edifying.