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Artillery Row

Against Protocol

Did Boris Johnson just announce he’s given up on Brexit negotiations?

Whilst many will have noted the Leader of the Opposition squarely beating the Prime Minister in today’s PMQs, many will have missed a curious question and answer in today’s session.

David Jones, ex-cabinet member and former Brexit minister under Theresa May (sacked for being too pro-Brexit) asked the Prime Minister what on earth he was planning on doing with the Northern Ireland protocol, since if nothing is done in the meantime, goods going from Great Britain into Northern Ireland “will be subject to the full rigour of the European Customs Code and also to the imposition of tariffs”.

Boris Johnson replied: “we must of course, and will, deliver on what the Protocol says which is that there shall be unfettered access between GB NI and NI GB, and there should be no tariffs, and we will legislate in the course of the next months to guarantee that.”

If the treaty Boris Johnson signed really did demand unfettered access of goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland (spoiler alert – it doesn’t), then why would he need more legislation to ‘guarantee’ it? The Withdrawal Agreement is already part of UK legislation. I’m told that the Prime Minister had already seen the question posed by Jones, so his answer today was already planned.

There are two potential things happening. One possibility is that the legislation the Prime Minister announced will not repudiate any of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the effects of the Protocol on UK sovereignty will remain in place. It may include some warm words, a declaration of UK sovereignty, or a clause that gives the UK powers that Ministers will never implement – lest they break the Withdrawal Agreement. In this case the upcoming legislation he announced is just designed to convince Brexiteers in the Conservative Party that the government is doing something, at the same time as conceding that the Northern Ireland Protocol will indeed come into force.

The second possibility is that the government really is serious about breaking the Withdrawal Agreement. In this case they would really be going for ‘no deal’ and, in effect, junking everything that’s happened so far. In this case it is very unlikely the EU will agree to a trade deal after the UK has tipped over the proverbial table. But since Michel Barnier has been saying today there currently no trade deal on offer, there’s currently nothing to lose.

But which Boris Johnson are we supposed to believe?  The Boris Johnson who claims he is going to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol, or the Boris Johnson who hints that he will make sure it has no effect on UK sovereignty? Both utterances came out at the same time which hasn’t exactly aided our understanding of what’s going on.

If the UK were to go for the second option they would be on strong ground to argue that it was actually the EU who have already been breaking the terms of the agreement by acting in bad faith. Michel Barnier has repeatedly held up discussing anything substantive unless the UK first agrees to give away access to Britain’s coastal waters, a pretty unreasonable demand in anyone’s book.

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