Liz Truss is taking on the EU without her party's full support
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.