General irritation at the management of the movement against the Brexit protocol


Given that he just announced a bill that could start a trade war amid the cost of living crisis, it’s remarkable how often members of the government say what they want is is that everyone calm down.

The intention to legislate is now officially announced, but the date when the bill will be seen by MPs is intentionally unclear. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said it was never expected this week. Of course not. From now on, the only commitment is “before the summer”.

Was it supposed to be like this? The initial plan began with Conor Burns, with his new title of US special envoy on Northern Ireland protocol, sent to Boston and Washington to look into the predicament in the UK. Burns was tasked with softening a White House skeptical that the protocol needed to change, armed with the heavy tomes of paperwork demanded of traders under the new system to demonstrate just how bad things are.

And it might have been a reasonable diplomatic mission if the Times hadn’t spiked its guns with leaked plans for the bill announced by Liz Truss on Tuesday. US diplomats and top lawmakers fumed at being caught off guard.

A day earlier in the United States, newspapers reported how Truss was prepared to be tough and how her cabinet colleagues – and leadership rivals – Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove had gone soft. It was “a flutter of leadership feathers,” a firm source said of Truss.

The leaked plans sent shockwaves through European capitals, prompting threats to roll back the UK trade deal, one of three weapons available to either side of the trade deal. Truss fired back in informed late-night quotes, saying EU-proposed solutions would make the situation worse.

All of the above might suggest an argument has been choreographed – Boris Johnson has been happy to use the memories of the Brexit fight as a way to gain dwindling backbench support. But sources close to Johnson seem genuinely miffed and there has been no attempt to cover up Truss’ irritation at how it was handled.

No 10 sources openly informed Truss in grim detail in the Sunday papers. Even on Monday, they pointed out that Johnson had had strong words with his foreign secretary and told her to calm things down. So now there’s a need for damage control – perhaps because Johnson had hoped he could adopt a statesmanlike persona and announce the bill with a “more sorrow than anger” tone. “.

Over the past few days he has played the role of peacemaker, publishing a 2,200-word essay on Northern Ireland on Monday that was far more thoughtful on nationality issues than some of his critics might have expected. But of course, it’s also probably satisfying for Johnson to see his biggest rivals, Sunak and Truss, looking a bit intimidated – although his foreign secretary did get what she wanted in the end.

Most ministers are optimistic about the progress of the talks, as are Tory MPs who are reluctant to vote for the bill but believe it will never come to that. Those with even a short-term memory will recall a similar tactic on the Internal Markets Bill and its plans to breach international law “in a limited and specific way”. The bill was a transparent negotiation tactic and was dropped as soon as it became appropriate to do so.

Yet it’s hard to argue that there isn’t even more urgency now that Northern Ireland has no functioning government. On Monday, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson stared down the tactic and said the announcement of the coming legislation was “just words”.

The big, perhaps unintended, consequences of the past week are that it seems to have caused the DUP to go further in their anti-protocol tactics than before, warning that they will not return to Stormont until the law is not enacted.

If these are just “words”, no one knows exactly how the real action will unfold.


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