Artillery Row

Ripping up the Withdrawal Agreement?

Brexiteers aren’t all convinced the legislation will achieve what’s promised

Last week I wrote about a curious question and answer session which passed without much comment at PMQs. When the pro-Brexit MP and former Minister David Jones asked Boris Johnson what was going to happen to the Northern Irish Protocol, he answered that they were going to introduce legislation to ensure there would be no friction in trade on the border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Was this, I asked, tantamount to ripping up the Withdrawal Agreement and ditching the idea of a trade deal?

Since my last piece, the plans to change part of the protocol have been confirmed by a leak over the weekend to the FT‘s Peter Foster. In truth, the only real news is that this plan has been made public: it has confirmed what Downing St. figures have been telling Brexiteer MPs for months, that they are going to sort out the problems of the Northern Ireland protocol with domestic legislation.

One Brexiteer MP points to the fact that the EU shouldn’t now be surprised that the UK is seeking to change aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement since Section 38 of the Withdrawal Agreement Act, the legislation which put the deal into UK law, asserts that parliament is sovereign and has the power to amend what is written in the initial agreement.

Another ERG MP and Spartan told me today that they were “90% confident” that this move by Downing St. is substantive and not a ruse designed to persuade Brexiteer MPs to support the government’s Brexit strategy. It is interesting however, that CCHQ has used the opportunity to try to bolster the Brexiteer base. Today they sent out an email to all Conservative Party members in the name of the Prime Minister with the subject “I will not back down” and reiterating October 15 as the deadline for giving up on the talks.

Perhaps we should just look more carefully at what the government is actually saying

Rebecca Ryan, the editor of the Global Vision website, was a member of the dwindling group of Conservative Party supporting, pro-Brexit activists who kept fighting Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement to the bitter end. She told me that the Northern Ireland protocol as it stands is “deeply problematic” and that the legislation planned for Wednesday was “cautiously welcome news” . But added: “If it is a gambit then it will need to be one they can deliver on for it to be taken seriously. Let’s hope they’ve planned ahead.”

One old Brexit hand suggests that it is more important to look at what the government has done rather than what they say. According to this theory, it suited the government to leak the plan to the most anti-Brexit journalist in Westminster who would write it up as if a few minor adjustments to customs procedure was equivalent to torpedoing the deal. Instead, suggests the source, Brexiteers should be looking at the substantial actions over the last few months and the huge work devoted to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol by adding a new customs framework. Why, if it was always the idea to scrap the agreement, has such effort been spent on this?

But perhaps we should just look more carefully at what the government is actually saying. At no point has anybody in Downing St. officially said they will rip up the entirety of the Northern Ireland protocol. A spokesman for the Prime Minister clarified today that they are “fully committed to the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland protocol, and have already taken many practical steps to do so”. When asked if this applied if an FTA has not been agreed they replied that it would.

Maybe the most damaging assessment is the decidedly patchy confidence in what is often perceived to be the last big issue the government have yet to botch. The growing belief amongst ERG Chieftans is that Boris Johnson is just Theresa May with a majority. When the bill is published on Wednesday we’ll find out whether this assessment is correct and discover which side it was the government was trying to fool.

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