28 June 2022

What’s the endgame for Northern Ireland?


Well, it has already got further than I and many other unionists probably feared it might. Last night, the bill to unilaterally amend the Northern Ireland Protocol passed its second reading in the House of Commons.

It was by no means certain to get this far. At one point, Liz Truss seemed to be suggesting that she would not proceed with the legislation if the Democratic Unionist Party didn’t return to government at Stormont – a course of action which would have directly undermined her own case that the bill is justified under international law by the doctrine of ‘necessity’.

The DUP wisely refused to take anything from the Prime Minister on his word alone, so the Government has backed down and pressed forward with the legislation. So what happens next?

Boris Johnson has said that he wants the new law in place by the end of the year. Before then, it will almost certainly face a mauling in the House of Lords. But this will be remediable as long as the Government can count on its own MPs, none of whom so far have voted against the bill.

However, this could change if the Prime Minister’s position weakens further. Theresa May’s fierce criticism owes much to her need to launder the memory of her own conduct and proposals during the negotiations over Ulster. But such controversial legislation could well provide a means by which MPs who never cared all that much about Northern Ireland could wound Johnson if they wanted to.

Then there’s the bigger question of what the Government’s strategy is. The new law is not itself a solution to the problem of the Protocol. It merely empowers ministers to make adjustments to the rules governing trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

More importantly, it obviously doesn’t do anything about possible retaliation by the European Union. Brussels has already threatened to pursue the United Kingdom through the international courts, and has not previously been shy about threatening punitive action outside the remedies provided for in the treaties.

Setting aside the morality of the EU putting the squeeze on our trade to try and cement what amount to territorial concessions, are ministers ready for such a battle? With the cost-of-living crisis biting and the cost of staples on the up, it is difficult to believe that Johnson of all people is ready for a showdown at the Channel.

The problem is that if we can work that out, so can Maroš Šefčovič and his confederates in Brussels. This is the long-term cost of the Prime Minister’s willingness to endlessly go back on his word: it is very difficult to convince anyone that he isn’t bluffing.

Of course, there is a chance that the EU might nonetheless misread the domestic situation. Johnson may not yet have been neutered by the liberal, establishment wing of his party, as I suggested when I predicted his arc in power would be that of a latter-day Napoleon III. But he is wounded, and the dynamic inside the Tory Party is no longer completely under his control.

Putting Liz Truss, a potential leadership rival, in charge of the Northern Irish brief was always a gamble. Saddling her with an impossible task might have hobbled her fortunes. But it also gives her a chance to continually one-up him on both defending the Union and standing up to the EU, characteristics which matter to important (if not always entirely overlapping) sections of the Conservative Party.

Take all that together, and it seems most likely that the Government doesn’t actually have a properly worked out endgame for the Protocol; in that, at least, it is no different to most other policy challenges facing Britain today. 

Engineering a face-saving way to back off therefore still seems most likely to be Johnson’s preferred option. But this will be tricky, because it would depend in part upon the cooperation of both the Foreign Secretary and the DUP, both of whom have agendas that don’t necessarily align with the Prime Minister’s best interests.

That invites an alternative wherein Government staggers into a battle it isn’t ready to fight, which will probably go about as well as you’d expect. It could finish off one or both of Johnson and Truss, whilst adding to a general picture of chaos and misgovernment a year or so out from a general election.

It may even end up serving both their interests best if a belated revolt on the back benches kills the bill at third reading. Don’t put it past the Prime Minister to try and bring that about.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.