Cabinet tensions flare over government plans to shred Northern Ireland protocol

Tories descend further into chaos in tense protocol talks.

Liz Truss

With his leadership in peril after a wounding confidence vote, Boris Johnson has retreated to his ‘comfort zone’, putting the finishing touches to controversial legislation that would unilaterally rewrite part of the Withdrawal Agreement that was negotiated and signed with Brussels in 2019.   

Less than 48 hours after the historic vote on his leadership on June 6, which saw 41% of his own MPs calling for him to step down, the Prime Minister signed off the highly contentious bill to change legislation governing trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Talks turn sour

Talks among cabinet ministers about the controversial plans turned sour, leaving the Tories descending further into chaos.

Foreign secretary Liz Truss agreed to toughen up the bill after last-minute representations by the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG). She agreed to amend the bill to accommodate the ERG’s demands that the European Court of Justice should be deprived of any role in Northern Ireland and for “sunset clauses” to eliminate key parts of the agreement within four years.  

This led to a fierce cabinet row, with Johnson, backed by Michael Gove, criticising Truss for agreeing to the changes. Truss and Tory MP and attorney general Suella Braverman have been accused of fluttering their ‘leadership feathers’ by attempting to get tougher on plans to replace the NI agreement.

Cabinet clashes

Truss and Braverman are reported to have clashed with Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak in fraught talks. According to a report in The Telegraph, it was eventually agreed that businesses in Northern Ireland would be subject to “dual regulation”, imposed by both UK and EU rules, when the bill is unveiled early next week.

The plan for an automatic “sunset clause”, which was demanded by Brexiteers to ensure EU authority would disappear after a few years, has been rejected.

The chancellor won the right for the Treasury to alter VAT in Northern Ireland, rather than make it UK-wide.

The Telegraph’s report continues that Johnson used ‘colourful language’ in the meeting. Tensions were apparently raised when the PM initially sided with Sunak and Gove, telling the meeting “Very clearly that our objective is not to be sovereignty purists but to find solutions that work in practice.”

A source told the paper that Gove had “been fighting hard on the protocol bill to keep the EU aligned.”

‘Feather fluttering from leadership wannabees’

Another source who is reportedly close to Sunak and Gove, said the meeting had contained “a lot of this feather fluttering from leadership wannabees” keen to impress the pro-Brexit Tory base.

Following the intense cabinet row, Tory Eurosceptics are said to have told Johnson that if the NI protocol is watered down and does not fully “neutralise” the Brexit text, they will vote it down.

“We want to neutralise the protocol,” said one senior ERG figure, arguing that the text was creating political instability in Northern Ireland.

Amid warnings there is “deep disquiet” among Tories about the plan, the controversial laws to override the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland are expected to be published early next week.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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