by Henry Hill
Tuesday, 14
June 2022
Explainer
11:33

Divided Tories won’t fix the Northern Ireland Protocol

Liz Truss is taking on the EU without her party's full support
by Henry Hill
None of them are mates. (Photo by Ben Stansall – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The Government is lurching towards a major international showdown over the Northern Irish Protocol. But given that Boris Johnson can’t even get his own party in order, how can he possibly hope to win it?

Last night, Liz Truss unveiled the legislation by which the Government intends to unilaterally override parts of the Protocol. It was on the more muscular end of what we might have expected. Not only are there provisions for easing the flow of goods, but also decisive action on curbing the role of European judges.

There is much good sense in the published proposals — especially the mooted ‘green lane’ for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain which are going to stay in the province. Contra the absurd position adopted by some of the EU’s enforcers, any workable version of the Sea Border has to involve some means of distinguishing between goods bound for the Single Market and those staying within the UK’s internal market.

And unlike earlier in the negotiations, when the other side was pretending that the backstop was an inevitable and unavoidable consequence of Brexit, there is now wider acknowledgement that change is needed. You don’t hear anyone (except Americans) talking about “rigorous implementation” of the existing Protocol anymore — even if many of the Government’s critics can’t or won’t articulate what they want to replace it.

But Brussels may not take these proposals seriously if they don’t think that Johnson is committed to them. And there is little chance that Dublin and Brussels will take such a bill lying down. Ideally, a government committed to such a bold course of action would project an aura of unity and determination. But only days ago, press reports suggested that Johnson, Rishi Sunak, and Michael Gove were lining up against Truss.

Clearly, she won the day. But the EU now knows that both the head of the most powerful Whitehall department and the man in charge of the Government’s ‘Union policy’, such as there is, are not on-side. Worse still, this comes just days after a sizeable minority of Conservative MPs publicly declared that they have no confidence in the Prime Minister.

Boris is also anxiously awaiting news of whether the influential European Research Group will support the proposals. Without the approval of the Eurosceptics in his party who have been clamouring for reform on the Protocol, the plans will struggle for legitimacy and parliamentary support.

This causes at least two problems. First, it would only take a determined core of far fewer than voted against Johnson last week to stymie any hopes of passing controversial legislation. Second, the EU has no incentive to compromise with Johnson if they think they can just wait him out. (This latter point is exacerbated by the Prime Minister’s track record of u-turns; Brussels won’t have forgotten that he was elected leader on a solemn promise to never sign up to the Irish Sea border.)

On the other hand, the precarity of Johnson’s leadership also creates pressure in the other direction. Unlike Lord Frost, who previously headed up the Protocol negotiations, Truss is a likely contender in any future leadership contest. And given the selectorate in that contest, she has no incentive to back down in any showdown with the EU.

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James Lawlor
James Lawlor
18 days ago

It’s time Boris called the remainer bluff. If this bill gets stopped he should go to the country and clear the air. The appalling behaviour and arrogance of the EU will have convinced many remainers to jump ship.

Reece Hudson
Reece Hudson
18 days ago
Reply to  James Lawlor

God, I thought i had clicked on the Daily Mail website by mistake.

This ‘unherd’ thing is just another extreme right wing talking shop

Paul Alexander
Paul Alexander
18 days ago
Reply to  Reece Hudson

Sad to say I think you may be right. The comments are often strangely right of centre. What’s going on? Bots or loonies?

Chris Bredge
Chris Bredge
15 days ago
Reply to  Paul Alexander

Strange you should mention bots or loonies. There are several names I haven’t seen before commenting on this piece in favour of the EU, including you and Reece Hudson.
Rasmus has long been a supporter so I exclude him from this criticism.

Last edited 15 days ago by Chris Bredge
Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
19 days ago

…. I can imaging that a part of the Northern Irish people must be rubbing their hands over all this: the level of ‘special dealing and wheeling’ back and forth that will develop over time is likely going to be significant…I can only think good for them while silly politics continue to be played on all sides……

James Lawlor
James Lawlor
18 days ago

Sinn/Fein will be the winners in both Northern and Southern Ireland if the government capitulates on the protocol. Liz Truss is right and the Tories must unite behind her and get this done.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
19 days ago

Riveting topic.

Paul Alexander
Paul Alexander
18 days ago

350000 voted DUP and win the right to sacrifice the UK economy. 16.1m voted Remain and are utterly ignored. What now for the ‘fast track’ US trade teal Truss previously heralded? This is a shambolic government built upon deceit and brazen self interest.
Johnson’s days are surely numbered as he dangles in the wind.
How far the UK Has fallen as it continues to lose international credibility, investment, wealth and hope.

Michelle Norris
Michelle Norris
19 days ago

This article is nonsense and would have been more suitable for the pages of the Daily Telegraph. The protocol is working every well as evidenced by the fact that Northern Ireland and London were the only regions of the UK to experience economic growth in the last quarter. Furthermore, all of the so called ‘problems’ with the protocol were subject to discussions with the EU authorities which UK government withdrew from. They have no intention of ever making the protocol work or any concern for the welfare of the people of Northern Ireland, they are just concerned with ‘keeping Brexit going’ interminably in order to keep together the rag tag collation of working class and wealthy Brexiteers which enabled Johnson to win the last election.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
19 days ago

Michelle, you are completely right about the economic growth and this is definitely one of the carrots that can be dangled in front of unhappy unionists to get them on board…but your response completely glosses over the questions of identity which are what is driving the unionist antipathy towards it. The EU seems to frame the entire question in terms of trade and this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue – until there is enlightenment on that front, the discussion is going nowhere.
I would however like to add that none of this excuses the cack-handed way the UK has gone about trying to sort the problem out.

Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago

The EU will roll over on this as they did over the original backstop, ECJ governance of the EU/UK FTA, invoking Article 16 to stop export of vaccines, Hungary’s judges, countries not abiding by deficit rules and so on.

Last edited 19 days ago by Matt M
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Unlikely. On the backstop, ECJ governance etc. they simply wanted to achieve a certain result and are flexible as to the how. They gave way on the backstop because Boris Johnson promised a border in the Irish Sea instead. Article 16 was a stupid move on their part, so they dropped it. On judges, deficit rules, etc. the big point is that they have to find a compromise that keeps all their members on board. The UK not being a member they can permit themselves a trade war.

Do you really believe that the UK can force the EU to comply with your demands? Do you also believe that Finland does not need NATO because they could simply invade Russia unaided?

Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I think you wildly overestimate the willingness of European countries to disrupt trade with the UK in order to prevent Red and Green import lanes appearing in Northern Ireland’s ports. Especially those who rely on the UK for their defence against Russia.
Keeping Sinn Fein and the EU Commission happy is not high on the priority list in most European capitals. Macron will throw his toys out of the pram, the British Remoaners will make out the sky is falling in, Nancy Pelosi might even get in on the act if it happens before the mid-terms, but ultimately the EU will back down.

Last edited 19 days ago by Matt M
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

You are missing the point. This is not about coloured import lanes, it is about giving the UK an opening that can be used to send goods into the EU trade area, bypassing EU rules, regulations and tariffs at will. Or not. Given trust and good will between the parties it would not be hard to find an agreement. Without that it is amply enough to justify a trade war.

Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Britain would simply make it an offence to mis-declare the destination of goods. If its final destination is NI: green lane, no checks. If Eire: red lane, EU checks. No reputable firm is going to violate that. Customs investigators could catch and prosecute smugglers. The losses to either party in terms of missed tariffs would be tiny.

I’m sure calm heads will prevail. If Finland and Sweden trust Britain enough to huddle under our nuclear umbrella while they wait to join NATO, I think they can trust us to police the smuggling of a few potatoes at the Irish border.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Of course Britain can do it – if Britain wants to. But suppose Britain does not particularly want to? The more British exports to the EU, the better for Britain. Why would Britain spend any resources on enforcing EU rules or tariffs, when Britain likely thinks the rules are unnecessarily rigid, gains nothing from enforcing them, and could reap great dividends as a low-regulation economy with full export access to the EU? The EU needs protection from British attempts to game the rules.
The EU-Norway deal is supposedly full of holes, but Norway is a small economy and has too much to lose by picking fights with the EU. And anyway both sides have spent years building mutual trust. Britain – big, bloody-minded, contemptuous of the EU, and with a proven record of going back on its promises, cannot convince anyone to accept a deal based on ‘of course we are going to be nice’.

Last edited 19 days ago by Rasmus Fogh
Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

You talk like HM Government are moving tradable goods around. Goods are moved by firms and they are not going to try to circumvent customs procedures for a quick profit. As if Sainsbury’s are going to say let’s divert these lorries over the border to avoid tariffs on fresh sausage meat. It’s a crazy proposition. A few criminal gangs might try something but it will be of tiny value and it will cut both ways so it will be in both British and Irish interests to stamp it out.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Read the Grenfell tower reports? Here we have large, well-reputed companies selling products that they know are immensely flammable as fire-resistant cladding. And getting away with it because the Government wants to reduce red tape and the enforcement mechanisms are underresourced. And this in an area where everybody agrees that people burning to death is bad.

Companies are certainly going to circumvent customs procedures, animal and plant health measures etc. if they can see a profit in it. And the British government will see this as a good thing and do nothing effective to stop it. UK firms profiting from circumventing the ridiculous EU rules? Great! All it takes is for the UK goverenment to make lots of pious promises (Johnson’s speciality), refuse to share data with the EU, give the job to an underresourced department, and make it known that protecting EU rules is not a high priority.

As for cutting both ways, Britain specifically aims to have laxer rules and fewer regulations than the EU. There is no threat of smuggling from the EU to Britain.

Last edited 19 days ago by Rasmus Fogh
Reece Hudson
Reece Hudson
18 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

very unlikely, but do keep up the wishful thinking

Reece Hudson
Reece Hudson
18 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Excellent

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
19 days ago

Contra the absurd position adopted by some of the EU’s enforcers, any workable version of the Sea Border has to involve some means of distinguishing between goods bound for the Single Market and those staying within the UK’s internal market.

This can only be possible if both sides are sincerely trying to make the deal work – and ‘working’, from the point of view of the EU, includes making sure that only goods that comply with EU regulations make it into the EU market. Unfortunately the UK has every interest in maximising UK exports into the EU, whatever the EU rules say, and a proven track record of breaking its word and acting in bad faith. Which is why any arrangements that rely on good faith enforcement on the UK side are likely to be rejected.

Last edited 19 days ago by Rasmus Fogh
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
18 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

If the EU are that worried about UK goods from Northern Ireland entering their territory then they’re free to erect a hard border and customs posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic

Reece Hudson
Reece Hudson
18 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

ever heard of the Good Friday Agreement?

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
18 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

If Britain wanted a no-deal Brexit, Britain should not have made a deal that promised to put the customs border in the Irish Sea. You can still get there – no constraints on Britain and no EU market access – but you would have been better off to go there directly, instead of making a different deal and then breaking it.