Stephen Booth: The Northern Ireland Protocol. A crisis is averted. But for how long?

1 Jul

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

Last week marked five years since the EU referendum. It was a seismic political event, and Leave/Remain political identities look set to continue to drive political changes across the country for years to come.

Most polling suggests that, in hindsight, most voters have not changed their minds about their 2016 decision. Nevertheless, both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats appear to see little political mileage in reopening the Brexit debate or mooting the prospect of re-joining. Perhaps this is because, while Remain and Leave identities continue to be strong forces in domestic politics, the question of actually re-entering the EU is a different matter.

A poll conducted last week by Opinium found that, when presented with four options, just 27 per cent think that Britain should re-join the EU. Of the other options, 22 per cent think we should negotiate a closer relationship than we have with the EU now, 20 per cent think the current relationship is about right and 22 per cent think we should form a more distant relationship. This suggests that future political debates about the EU are more likely to be about the type of relationship we have with Brussels and the various member states, rather than reopening the fundamental membership question.

In the here and now, the UK-EU dispute over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol continues to rumble on since it came into force six months ago, and still threatens to sour the broader relationship. A range of issues are being discussed, including chilled meats, pet travel, VAT on used cars, tariff quotas on steel, medicines, and customs processes.

Last week, appearing respectively before the Northern Ireland Affairs and Foreign Affairs Committees, Brandon Lewis and Lord Frost repeated the Government’s position that the current state of play is unsustainable, due largely to the “chilling” effect on Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade, and that all options are being considered to deal with the situation.

Yesterday, the EU formally confirmed its agreement to the UK’s request for an extension of the grace period for trade in chilled meats, which has avoided an imminent potential ban on sausages and the like being imported into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The agreement on the extension avoids a further escalation, which might have occurred if the UK had unilaterally extended the grace period, as it did with other grace periods in March this year. Meanwhile, the EU appears to have taken the view that a further public bust up isn’t in its interests at this stage.

However, the extension merely buys time over the summer rather than fundamentally resolving the situation regarding checks on food, or the wider Protocol, where the UK and EU positions remain at odds in many areas. The EU suggests the time be used for Northern Irish retailers to adjust their supply chains to source products from the Irish Republic and the rest of the EU – a further diversion of Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade. Meanwhile, the UK insists that the time be used to find permanent solutions that respect Northern Ireland’s position within the UK’s customs territory.

On Monday, Maroš Šefčovič appeared before a Stormont committee, and repeated the EU’s position that the long-term solution to reducing or removing checks on food and animals should come in the form of the UK adopting Swiss-style dynamic alignment to EU agri-food rules. This would, he has suggested, remove the need for 80 per cent of checks. The alternative model – a New Zealand-style mutual recognition of standards – would reduce checks but leave many in place, he added.

Yet, the fact that Switzerland and New Zealand each have their own arrangements would suggest that a bespoke arrangement for Northern Ireland ought to be possible. This is what the UK is proposing. Frost has rejected a Swiss-style approach, describing it as an “abrogation of sovereignty”, since the EU would insist on the “ability to police it through its institutions”, such as the EU Court.

Frost outlined to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the UK’s proposal is based on a bespoke equivalence arrangement, whereby both sides acknowledge each other’s current high food safety standards, and if either side diverges from those standards, then the other side can increase checks and controls accordingly. Ultimately, this is likely to require the EU to change its own border rules, which Brussels has fiercely resisted up to now, insisting that any flexibilities must be agreed within the legal confines of the Protocol and existing EU law.

However, in a significant departure form that stance, Sefcovic told this week’s Stormont Committee session that the EU would be prepared to change its own legislation in the particular case of medicines placed on the NI market, which under the current terms fall within the purview of the EU, rather than UK, regulator. “We want to ensure that citizens in Northern Ireland have full access to all the medicines they need,” he said. “This will not be easy, as this would require a change of our EU rules but I am committed to do this important effort if it requires actual legislative change on our side.”

If EU law can be tailored for medicines, why not in other areas, since it is not only medicines that are a publicly sensitive issue under the Protocol.

poll of voters in Northern Ireland by LucidTalk for academics at Queen’s University Belfast, published yesterday, found that, while 67 per cent said they believe that Northern Ireland does need “particular arrangements” for managing the impact of Brexit, 43 per cent agree that the protocol is, on balance, good for Northern Ireland, whereas 48 per cent think that it is not. And, while 57 per cent think the Protocol provides Northern Ireland with a “unique set of post-Brexit economic opportunities”, by providing it access to both EU and UK markets, more than two thirds see the Protocol impacting negatively on political stability.

The UK’s current approach appears to be to grind away at the EU position, rather than adopt further unilateral measures at this stage. However, with the Protocol continuing to cause major problems on the ground, despite the current stop-gap easements in place, this position may be revisited in the autumn if the stalemate continues.

Henry Hill: Frost secures a stay of execution for British trade with Northern Ireland, but no sign of a pardon yet

24 Jun

Progress? This morning’s papers report the the UK and the EU may be on the cusp of an agreement to extend the ‘grace periods’ for fresh foodstuffs being shipped from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. The FT reports:

“The EU offer of an extension would be subject to broad conditions, including UK commitments to work towards longer-term, more sustainable solutions for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and steps ensuring there are no threats to the single market.”

If true, this would spare the Government having to unilaterally extend them, as it has previously, in order to prevent east-west supply chains being severed by the Irish Sea border.

Obviously it is too soon to celebrate. It remains entirely unclear what ‘more sustainable solutions’ there are that reconcile the EU’s attitude towards what Maroš Šefčovič calls its “economic border” and the Government’s current determination to defend the integrity of the British internal market. Talk of ‘win-win’ outcomes from the Irish side usually end up meaning UK alignment with EU rules.

The border is also already undermining that market, redirecting trade southwards, undermining Northern Ireland’s economic links with the mainland and placing much of its economy under the political control of external institutions. Even if Lord Frost can secure a win on food supplies, it will take much more to truly offset the harm the Protocol is doing to the Union.

Nonetheless, he and Brandon Lewis surely deserve credit for at least getting Brussels back to the table. I reported in March how his appointment to his current post signalled that the Government recognised that there was a battle that needed to be fought over the Irish Sea, and so far Boris Johnson has backed that up. It signalled a welcome shift from last December, when it looked as if Michael Gove might be resigned to the loss of Britain-to-Ulster supply chains.

The EU’s decision to grant an extension also suggests that the Government’s strategy of taking small, carefully-targeted steps and taking pains to look like the reasonable party has paid off. Brussels clearly didn’t think that provoking the UK into another unilateral extension was a winning move.

But the real question is whether or not this signals any deeper shift in attitudes on their part. For all their warm words about solidarity with Ireland and protecting the peace in Ulster, the reality is that the EU has consistently prioritised the sanctity of its commercial frontier over either. Hence the insistence that they would demand the full panoply of checks on any land border, or failing that, that they might even introduce a sea border with the Republic.

If mutual respect and the warm words about the Belfast Agreement had any meaning, the breadth and depth of unionist and loyalist opposition to the Protocol would demand a rethink. Instead, as usual, they are being told to lump it. But if Agreement and the architecture it laid down continue to be wielded in a manner so obviously dismissive of unionists’ rights and concerns, their support for it will come under increasing strain.

The Irish Sea border is the product of a humiliating diplomatic defeat, blundered into by Theresa May and the old Northern Ireland Office. It is symptomatic of a deep-seated malaise in London’s approach to Northern Ireland that will be a long time in the fixing. But recognising the need to deliver fundamental changes to the Protocol is a good start.

Interview with Dominic Raab: The EU’s approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol is “pretty analogue in a digital age”

18 Jun

Brexit has resulted in “a massive empowering of the Foreign Office to go out and have a genuine global foreign policy”. So says Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary since July 2019.

There has not, he suggests, been any comparable change in the attitude of the European Commission, particularly with regard to the Northern Ireland Protocol, where “the approach that Brussels seems to be wedded to is pretty analogue in a digital age”.

Raab questions the idea that the conflicts in Kashmir, and in Israel/Palestine, risk spilling over into British politics.

He denies he is better at chairing meetings than Boris Johnson, admits he is “still not wild” about taking the knee, and contends that the Conservative Party’s new appeal to voters in the North need not be gained at the expense of support in seats such as his own, in the home counties:

“What we’re trying to do is forge that crucial alliance between aspirational working and middle class voters. That’s the elixir of Conservative strategy I think.”

The interview was carried out on Wednesday evening, and ConHome began by asking about the material released that morning by Dominic Cummings, and the period when Johnson was at death’s door and Raab was “covering for the boss”.

ConHome: “Do you agree with today’s report that you are better than the Prime Minister at chairing meetings?”

Raab: “No [laughter].”

ConHome: “Here’s the full quote: ‘Unlike the Prime Minister Raab can chair meetings properly instead of telling rambling stories and jokes. He lets good officials actually question people, so we started to get to the truth.'”

Raab: “What is the question?”

ConHome: “Is this an accurate account?”

Raab: “No, no. I try to do things professionally, and I think the Prime Minister deploys me for that. But actually I think to the extent we’re talking about the period when I was covering for the boss, we were all focussed on doing what he wanted.

“There was a good team effort, in order to get ourselves into good shape for when we hoped he would be back at the helm.”

ConHome: “And what do you think of Cummings himself?”

Raab: “I can’t see any value added from me commenting on the commentary.”

ConHome: “Was there ever actually a moment when the Prime Minister was ill when you thought, ‘I’m going to have to take over’?”

Raab: “When you say ‘take over’, you mean beyond…”

ConHome: “Beyond what you were doing anyway.”

Raab: “I was conscious that he was not well, but also I think I had the pretty firm conviction he’d pull through. But I didn’t know.

“The truth is I thought he was in good hands with the doctors, which he was, exceptional care, and what I knew he’d want, when he came to, and was able to engage, was to know we hadn’t been sitting there, fretting so much over him, but that we’d been getting on doing what needed to be done for the country.

“That was the rationale. And the truth is the Cabinet were brilliant, because it’s a team effort, very disciplined, very professional, and I suppose that sense of worry and concern for someone who’s a colleague, not just our boss, kicked in.”

ConHome: “You never felt a moment of absolute terror, thinking ‘I’m going to have to be a kind of interim figure who…'”

Raab: “Well not really. There was never any news that gave me credible cause for concern. The truth is, people ask me this a lot, I didn’t have a lot of time for my mind to wander. It was pretty hectic.

“The Foreign Office was very busy at the time, and then there was obviously trying to make sure that we steered things through.

“I think I’m right in saying it was around the point at which we were edging towards the five tests of how we would come through lockdown.

“So there was a huge amount of substantive work, the Prime Minister had given us our steer, so there was a load to get on with, and I was just focussed on that really.”

ConHome: “Only a few weeks ago, a convoy went down the Finchley Road with someone shouting ‘F*** the Jews, rape their daughters’.

“Do you think the effect of foreign affairs, and of Israel/Palestine, is intensifying in a malign way here in the UK?”

Raab: “That was a deeply worrying incident and we jumped on it very quick, both in terms of condemning it, but also making sure the Met were aware, and satisfying ourselves that they were on the case, to give the Jewish community the reassurance they needed.

“But this cross-fertilisation of the international realm into domestic policy actually is much more prevalent than that. You can see it on a whole range of issues.

“Because we’ve got such a wonderful international mix in the UK. I am very, very sensitive to the impact on the British Chinese community of what we’re doing.

“When you think about that community, one of the most entrepreneurial, I sat on the Education Select Committee for two years, the British Chinese standards, the parenting, the engagement, from every class level, was exceptional. The contribution they make to cultural life, in lots of different ways.

“You can think of it from both sides in relations to Kashmir.

“If global Britain is going to mean what it says, which we do, of course we’re going to have to be sensitive to and take into account the feelings of those who have immigrated or settled here, or second, third, fourth generation communities.

“The same is true the other way as well. One of the big things that happened, which didn’t get a huge amount of attention, is the Prime Minister’s meeting – it had to be virtual in the end – with Prime Minister Modi, where we set out a road map for ten years, the 2030 road map, including the road map to an FTA.

“Some great stuff on migration and mobility, and young people, young professionals from here and from India being able to come and take advantage of everything the UK and India has to offer.

“Some stuff on cyber and other things, climate change.

“India deemed the UK a Comprehensive Strategic Partner. We’re only the fourth country India’s done that with. Now Prime Minister Modi himself has talked about the living bridge between the UK and India.

“He’s quite a lyrical leader, but actually it’s quite a good way of looking at it.

“And we have quite a few countries, because of our Commonwealth links, because of the travelling nature of Brits, where that’s true.

“But the truth is, if your foreign policy is a combination of pursuing a principled approach, but also delivering the national interest for the people of your country, you ought to be able to navigate that.”

ConHome: “Do you feel, in relation to Israel/Palestine and Kashmir, that the skies are darkening?”

Raab: “Well I don’t think you can combine them together.

“But let me take Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve been out there twice. I was out there recently. I met Yair Lapid as well as Prime Minister, as then was, Netanyahu, and a range of other leading figures.

“There is still going to be a measure of instability. I think the coalition may be fragile, it may be ground-breaking, we don’t know.

“But I think there seems to be a consensus that they need to firm up the ceasefire, and we need to try to avoid a vacuum taking hold, and there’s all sorts of ways we can do that.

“On the Palestinian side, there is an urgent need to shore up and support the moderate Palestinian leadership, and isolate and marginalise Hamas.

“I’m not expecting final status peace talks round the corner by Christmas. On the other hand, if you allow a vacuum to take hold then Hamas will take advantage.

“It’s in the moral and strategic interests of both sides to avoid that.”

ConHome: “In relation to antisemitism here, the effect of Israel/Palestine here, you don’t feel it’s getting worse?”

Raab: “Well I talked to the Chief Rabbi recently, I talked to the Board of Deputies, obviously I’ve got some history of my own.

“I think off the back of Corbyn, and with some of the radicalised elements of the Left articulating themselves, I think there has been a heightened sense of nervousness.

“But I also feel that we can provide the reassurance and that there is enough community cohesion here, not just among the Jewish community, but among British society as a whole, to stand up very vigorously and robustly against that.

“You look back in the Seventies, and you had radicalised groups seeking to take advantage of what was going on in the Middle East, and making their point here at home.

“I think we need to watch it very carefully, but I don’t think there’s a ground shift or a gear change in that happening.”

ConHome: “On India, Labour have put out a leaflet in the Batley and Spen byelection that is almost entirely about foreign affairs. There’s a section about Israel/Palestine, there’s a section about Kashmir where it says, ‘The Conservatives’ links to the BJP must not stand in the way of justice for Kashmir.’

“Are you worried at all that the Kashmir issue is dividing up on party political lines?

“Labour look at the Conservative Party and they say, ‘There are three ministers of Indian heritage in the Cabinet – the Conservatives are taking up a pro-Indian position,’ and you end up with that kind of division, which would be a very bad thing.”

Raab: “Well I don’t think the Labour Party could credibly do that, a) because of the British Indian communities in their constituencies, so from a pure or political interest, or b) given their historic approach to Kashmir, which is that it is for the two sides to resolve this long-standing dispute.

“I’ve never ducked raising the issue of Kashmir and human rights with the Indian government. I did it when I was in Delhi.

“The Labour Party would look incredibly hypocritical, and they would get a backlash from the other community, if they were to try to create this as a wedge issue.”

ConHome: “The Conservatives are now widely perceived as having shifted North both electorally and emotionally. Now you sit for a Surrey seat, Walton and Esher, a commuter seat, a traditionally Tory seat.

“Is there now a danger of your constituents believing the Conservatives are no longer quite so behind them?”

Raab: “The strategy, in political terms, is always to forge an alliance between the aspirational working and middle classes of this country.

“And that’s not new. Look at how successful Thatcher was, albeit in a different time and place, and a different context.

“What we’re doing as global Britain, as a force for good in the world, far from alienating Conservative voters, small-l liberal Conservative voters, I think goes down very well.

“The fact that we put Magnitsky sanctions on everyone from those persecuting the Rohingya to those persecuting the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

“The fact that Brexit is no longer a live issue for most of our constituents, they’re not being asked to vote on it.

“What we’re trying to do is forge that crucial alliance between aspirational working and middle class voters. That’s the elixir of Conservative strategy I think.

“There’s a ceiling on the Lib Dem vote if they only rely on the negative. Can anyone remember a single positive Lib Dem policy, now Brexit’s done?

“They’re campaigning in Chesham and Amersham on HS2, but they voted for it.”

ConHome: “Was Biden right in saying the G7 is in ‘a contest with autocracies’?”

Raab: “I think there’s definitely a sense that democracies are in retreat, if you just look at the numbers. And that the battle for the hearts and minds of the centre ground of the international community is there to be won but needs to be fought with a great vigour and energy.

“It’s great having the US return to the Paris Agreement on climate change. We cannot as a cluster of like-minded countries leave that vacuum in those multilateral institutions, because China and Russia or whoever else will fill it.”

ConHome: “Our ambassadors in say Paris or Berlin, who do they report to? Is it you, as Foreign Secretary? Or is it Lord Frost?”

Raab: “David [Frost] deals with the stuff that takes place under the EU formal mechanisms. He’s responsible for the EU business in relation to the Free Trade Agreement and the Withdrawal Agreement.

“I’m responsible for the stuff in relation to the foreign affairs co-operation that we have, and I lead on the bilateral relationships, but obviously the two dovetail quite closely together.

“I don’t feel desperately proprietorial about it for two reasons. One, David’s a brilliant colleague.

“Secondly we are engaged it a process now where we look at our foreign policy in a much more integrated way.

“The truth is the Foreign Office is now much more central. We have a Prime Minister who really believes in the Foreign Office.

“With the merger [with the Department for International Development] I think we can all see that.”

ConHome: “So Brexit has actually worked out to the advantage of the Foreign Office? Because our foreign policy isn’t delegated in any way to Brussels any more. It’s our foreign policy.”

Raab: “I think there’s a massive empowering of the Foreign Office to go out and have a genuine global foreign policy. I’ve been out to the Nordics, I’m very keen on building up the N5 relationship, and the same with the Baltic Three, the Visegrad Four.

“Obviously with the Indo-Pacific stuff that we’re doing, I’m going out to Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore next week, there is just a real chance for us to be more energetic, more activist.”

ConHome: “Do you still think that taking the knee is ‘a symbol of subjugation and subordination’?”

Raab: “I think we all ought to be united in the fight against racism, and we also, if tolerance is to mean anything, should be able to find our own way to express it.

“I’m personally not wild about taking the knee, but if the England team want to do it, it shouldn’t just be respected, it should be supported.”

ConHome: “And should not be booed?”

Raab: “I’m one of those people who don’t believe in booing your own team. Certainly not the England team as they’re embarking on the European championships.”

ConHome: “On the Northern Ireland Protocol, is there any intrinsic greater difficulty in dealing with a Democrat administration, because of the pressure that comes on an American President from an Irish diaspora who are not necessarily familiar with all the intricacies and nuances of policy in Northern Ireland?”

Raab: “So first of all there’s always a slightly different constellation of opportunities and risks depending on who’s in the White House.

“Also, the make-up of Congress. And that’s true regardless of who’s in the White House. I was going and talking to the likes of Richie Neal and the Irish caucus when I was Foreign Secretary before and after the recent US election.

“The Irish lobby on the Hill, which is not just Democrats, it also includes Republicans, feels like it’s got a stake, and does have a stake, in the Good Friday Agreement, I think we respect that, I remember the work that George Mitchell and other Americans did.

“But there’s certainly a job for us to do to make sure first of all that a full, comprehensive picture of what’s going on on the ground is understood, and the impact the Northern Ireland Protocol has for communities on all sides in Northern Ireland.

“And frankly just the bare facts of what’s been going on in terms of the application of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“If you look at the perimeter of the EU, and you think about the challenges they’ve got from the Central and Eastern European border, right down to the Mediterranean border, and you think of the sliver of the border in Northern Ireland, it is rather striking that one in five of controls and checks for the whole of the EU to police the single market takes place in Northern Ireland.

“I think talking in reasonable terms about the lack of proportionality in that is important. And having a sensible conversation with our US partners is really important. We can’t shrink from that.”

ConHome: “Do you feel you made any progress on that issue at the G7, given what happened before it with the demarche?”

Raab: “I think we’ve made steady progress right the way through, I didn’t read too much into the leaking of what happened, I think we make steady progress when we explain our position in sober terms.”

ConHome: “On the Protocol, you can’t rule out having to implement Article 16. If we do, we would need presumably to protect ourselves from the effects of Article 16 in domestic law and pass a Bill to that effect, would we not?”

Raab: “Look I’m not going to speculate on the decision or the things that would need to accompany the decision. The over-riding message we get across is we want a pragmatic, flexible approach from the EU, and if we don’t get it we’ll do whatever it takes to protect the economic and the constitutional integrity of the Union.

“Ideally, the ball is in the EU’s court, David Frost has sent a range of proposals over.

“What we just cannot have is a situation where Northern Ireland is receiving three times the volume of checks that you see in Rotterdam, double the number of checks that you see in France, to police the EU single market. That cannot be right.”

ConHome: “Did Martin Selmayr say that “losing Northern Ireland was the price the UK would pay for Brexit?”

Raab: “So as I said at the time, when I was asked about this, when I was Brexit Secretary I would get, not from political hacks or spin doctors, I would get constantly fed back to me that there was a political dimension to this.

“And so from officials I had fed back to me that Selmayr had made this point.

“All the officials fed back that for the EU this is existential, and therefore they’re going to want to deter leaving the EU.

“My relationship with Michel Barnier was perfectly cordial and constructive, I respect the guy, but I remember him losing his temper with me when I said we ought to be trying to forge something that is win-win.

“And I think there is a mindset in the Commission, and probably in some other parts of the EU, but I still think it was a fairly narrow mindset, but it was a controlling one, that there was no win-win to be found.

“I look at the thing, my father was Czech, I feel a very strong sense of European identity, we’re not leaving Europe, we’re leaving the EU, let’s try and forge win-win.

“As people might say after the divorce, you can understand why one side of it or the other don’t feel that way. But I still think that’s what we should be aiming for. And that’s our foreign policy. That’s what the Prime Minister believes.”

ConHome: “Do you believe this ethos of punishment is still there in relation to the Protocol?”

Raab: “I don’t want to impute bad intentions, but put it this way, what I do deal with are the facts, and the facts do not justify the fact that one in five controls or checks for the whole of the EU’s external border are now taking place in Northern Ireland.

“That just cannot be right. And that’s not born of protecting the equities of the single market, so there must be some more to it.

“I go and look at borders all around the world. Frankly the approach that Brussels seems to be wedded to is pretty analogue in a digital age.”

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Good King Boris baffles his critics with benevolence

9 Jun

Good King Boris looked out, filled with benevolence towards all men and women, ready to welcome six of his fellow monarchs to a series of Cornish banquets.

The Labour benches attempted to portray him as a stingy son of privilege. Sir Keir Starmer accused him of spending only £50 per pupil per year to repair the harm done by the pandemic, compared to a munificent £1,600 per pupil in the United States and fully £2,500 a head in the Netherlands.

Johnson, unabashed, stuck to the line that Britain has “the biggest tutoring programme anywhere in the world”.

When Sir Keir pointed out that Britain is the only G7 country to be cutting aid, Good King Boris replied that on the contrary, the present Government has continued to spend more on aid than Labour ever did, “even when they were spending money on Brazilian dancers in Hackney”.

Ian Blackford, for the SNP, wished the Scotland team well in the Euros. Good King Boris outbid him by wishing both Scotland and England well, and took a swipe at “the leftie propaganda…all they want to do is run the country down”.

Sir Keir laughed, Blackford frowned and Johnson declared in triumph that “one in three of the vaccines being distributed round the world to the poorest and the neediest come from the Oxford AstraZeneca supply”.

His account of how things are going was worthy of Dr Pangloss. Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Like Voltaire, Johnson mocked his opponents by spicing his remarks with ludicrous touches. Things are going so well, and his opponents are so derisory, he has no need to be solemn.

Lord Frost, Britain’s EU negotiator, the PM declared, is “the greatest Frost since the Great Frost of 1709, or whenever it was”.

Ian Lavery (Lab, Wansbeck) remarked that Johnson has “a wonderfully privileged educational background”, yet is spending only 20 pence a day to help other pupils catch up, but had no more success with this line than Sir Keir.

Jonathan Edwards (Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) told a story of Brexit “betrayals” of Northern Ireland Unionists, fishermen and farmers, and wondered who comes next – steel workers?

“No,” Johnson replied, and accused Edwards of “completely missing the dynamism and optimism of so many people I meet in the agricultural sector who see opportunities for for Welsh lamb and Welsh beef around the world… Welsh beef and Welsh farmers can do brilliantly.”

Edwards should be backing Wales, for Johnson certainly is. And with that, the benevolent monarch left the Chamber, relishing the prospect of travelling in the footsteps of King Arthur to the West Country and feasting with the knights of the G7 at Carbis Bay.

Hancock’s score falls by over 20 points in our latest Cabinet League Table

5 Jun

Whether or not the nation unlocks on June 21 hangs in the balance. The Cabinet is divided over whether or not to impose ‘environmental’ tariffs on Australian meat. The Prime Minister’s education tsar just resigned. So how’s the Cabinet League Table looking?

  • Matt Hancock’s score falls by 23 points in a single month, although he just about manages to avoid disturbing the three regular low-rankging faces on the table’s inverse podium. Dominic Cummings’ head-on attack on the Health Secretary has clearly had an effect.
  • The Prime Minister’s score has recovered a bit, rising from 19th to 11th place and putting on more than 20 points. It isn’t difficult to imagine it climbing further or falling hard again next month, depending on whether unlocking goes ahead or we see a new surge in cases. Volatility remains one of the salient features of Boris Johnson’s score.
  • Liz Truss has now topped the table six months running, and her rating is almost unchanged from last month. It looks as if securing new trade deals and taking fire at the woke agenda is a winning combination with the grassroots.
  • Robert Jenrick languishes near the bottom of the table, as he has for months, underpolled only by Amanda Milling and Gavin Williamson. The price one pays for taking housebuilding seriously?
  • Lord Frost holds on to fourth place and sees his score climb into the 70s – perhaps reflecting support from our panellists for his determined efforts to secure changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Henry Hill: Johnson must give Frost and Lewis his full support over the Northern Ireland Protocol

3 Jun

The Union is one of, if not the, most important policy challenges facing the Government. If Boris Johnson gets it wrong, he will go down in history as a byword for the disintegration of the United Kingdom.

A man as historically-aware as the Prime Minister must be acutely aware of this. But it hasn’t spurred him to take the sort of grip on the subject that one might expect.

In particular, there seems to be a gap opening up between the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland, which is still under the control of the Vote Leave tendency in the form of Lord Frost, and the mainland, following the departure of Oliver Lewis and the dissolution of the Union Unit.

Frost, as I noted back in March, has been installed with clear orders to deliver meaningful change to the Northern Ireland Protocol. He has an ally in Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State, who has robustly defended the Government’s decision to unilaterally extend grace periods to east-to-west protect food supply lines. This morning, both men penned an article for the Belfast Telegraph reiterating the mission:

“In contrast, at Larne, every supermarket lorry from Great Britain carries up to hundreds of different product lines, each with their own documents, which the EU would want to see subject to checks, even when all the products are clearly destined for consumers in Northern Ireland. We have both heard about the delays and complexity this introduces, and the concerns that issues such as this have produced for unionism more broadly.”

They then point out that if a solution isn’t found, broader unionist and loyalist support for the current settlement could be undermined. The failure of Theresa May and her ministers to prevent the Belfast Agreement being used to merely sacralise Dublin’s demands – a truly abject episode of British diplomacy – could have dire consequences.

But the question is whether or not Lewis and Frost will have the necessary support from the centre to see the current strategy through. There is now nobody directing the Government’s strategy on the Union full-time, and the architects of the muscular ‘Ukima Unionism’ approach – named for the UK Internal Market Act – are increasingly sidelined or departed. Some are concerned that in the event of a showdown with the EU, Downing St will balk and Frost may get thrown under the bus.

That may explain why he has adopted such a conspicuously reasonable approach, eschewing the nuclear option of Article 16 whilst covering tough moves on grace periods – “action to avoid immediate disruption to lives and livelihoods” – in the language of finding “long-term solutions”.

(Amusingly, some Idefenders of the Protocol have developed the habit of simultaneously decrying London’s ‘bad faith’ failure to enforce the Protocol whilst citing the relative lack of disruption secured by extending grace periods as evidence that the Sea Border works!)

Delivering change now, before the Protocol has been bedded in and normalised, is the best chance by far to avoid the long-tern economic and regulatory de-alignment of the Province from the mainland. The Prime Minister owes those tasked with this mission his full support.

Northern Ireland’s place in the UK must be affirmed by deed, as well as by word

2 Jun

Over the past few years, one of the biggest complaints that Northern Irish unionists have had about the British Government is the sense that the Northern Ireland Office is not on their side. They contrast the NIO’s painstaking neutralism with Dublin’s energetic championing if the nationalist interest in the Province.

This has become an especially sore point in the aftermath of the EU referendum, as London ended up getting comprehensively outmanoeuvred over Ulster. Theresa May ended up accepting the need for a ‘backstop’ or Protocol after basically getting memed into an absurdly maximalist interpretation of “our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement”.

It ought to have been the NIO’s responsibility to have the UK Government’s own understanding of its commitments properly articulated and ready to go. They did not, and the result was an abject episode of British diplomacy, the dire consequences of which Lord Frost has been tasked with unpicking.

Fortunately, the Government seems to have realised that the problems created by the Protocol are not simply a matter for its trade negotiators. A border in the Irish Sea strikes directly at Northern Ireland’s position as an equal part of the United Kingdom. Reassurance needs to be offered on multiple fronts.

It is therefore very welcome that Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State, announced yesterday that the town of Hillsborough is going to become the first in the Province to be awarded ‘Royal status’, in light of its “close ties to the Royal Family”.

Obviously this is only a small thing in itself. But the fine details of life – see also inviting Rangers and Celtic to join the Premier League, or running Great British Railways in national livery – add up. If the Belfast Agreement is to endure as a settlement that respects (and is thus respected by) both communities – and that isn’t certain – the Government must be unafraid to reinforce Northern Ireland’s British status in deed, as well as in word.

There will be those who splutter about “more flags”, just as they did when ministers announced an expanded footprint for UK Government departments or Lewis confirmed they would fly the Union Jack. This is the same sort of thinking that saw litigants try to take Theresa May’s ministry to court over its confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party, as if the very participation of Northern Irish MPs in a British Government breached an Agreement that explicitly affirms their Britishness.

For too long, the institutional attitude of the NIO seemed to reflect the mindset that has afflicted London’s approach to Ulster since the foundation of Stormont: that it is to be quietly sidelined from the UK’s national life until it inevitably joins the Republic. There has apparently been a belated but determined effort to shift this since the election, with one official allegedly complaining that the Department is now ‘too right-wing and too unionist’ – which is only fitting for a right-wing, unionist Government.

The question is whether this can be sustained. Changing deep-seated attitudes takes a long time, and mainland politicians thrust into Northern Irish posts seem especially prone to capture by groupthink. Even today, when food supplies to the Province have only been maintained by unilateral British action, Simon Hoare – the Chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee – claims businesses in North Dorset would “bite your hand off” for Ulster’s semi-detached commercial status. It would be a crying shame if all this good would were squandered by a careless reshuffle.

Henry Hill: Dowden must resist the SNP’s Eurovision power-grab – and force the BBC to up its game

27 May

The SNP’s claims to present a nicer form of nationalism have always been dubious – the movement contains plenty of people whose attitudes are just as ugly as those you’ll find in any other similar cause.

One Nationalist official said the quiet part out loud this week when she tweeted, in response to the UK’s abysmal Eurovision performance, that “we hate the United Kingdom too”.

So far, so standard. But cannier Nationalists had a more dangerous response. Alyn Smith, their foreign affairs spokesman, used the result to argue that Scotland should be allowed to enter the contest separately. Indeed, he said that there were actually no legal barriers to it doing so.

The Government should strenuously resist any such effort. As I explained elsewhere, Britain competes as Britain on the international stage too infrequently as it is. With the happy exception of the Olympics, we lack the national sports teams which provide a common focus for patriotic pride in other countries.

As a result, those occasions where Britain does compete – even in something as intrinsically silly as Eurovision – are disproportionately important.

Recent governments have got this when it comes to the Olympics, where state funding has been ruthlessly directed towards those disciplines and athletes most likely to medal. The result has been extremely impressive performances in 2008, 2012, and 2016.

It’s time to bring that attitude to Eurovision. Simply letting BBC higher-ups choose our entrant has produced terrible results, so it’s time for change. Perhaps Oliver Dowden should even task the Corporation with setting up something akin to Sweden’s Melodifestivalen, a national talent contest which could give acts from across the country a chance to compete (and give us a benefit that isn’t dependent on the votes of other countries).

Lewis joins chorus for less stringent EU checks for Northern Ireland

Ministers are “increasingly worried” about the heavy-handed way the European Union is going about enforcing checks on goods crossing the trade border the Prime Minister agreed to put in the Irish Sea, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Irish Secretary, has claimed that Sainsbury’s are having difficulty moving foodstuffs to their stores in the Province – even though it has no outlets in the Republic, and there is thus no risk of such products entering the EU.

This comes amidst Government anger at claims by Dublin that it is “dangerously fuelling tensions” in Ulster. Irish commentators have been decrying David Frost’s warnings that the Protocol risks fuelling loyalist violence – apparently choosing to forget the way the threat of republican violence was regularly cited as a reason that a light-touch land border could not be countenanced.

Likewise, UK warnings that the Protocol risks undermining the Belfast Agreement are no more absurd than Irish and EU allegations that a land border would have done so.

All this is in line with what we first reported back in March: that Lord Frost’s appointment signalled that the Government was serious about securing substantive changes to the Protocol, which insiders insist the Government was effectively coerced into backing by the Benn-Burt Act. Ministers have already moved unilaterally once to make sure that food supplies to Ulster are not interrupted, and sources suggest they are quite prepared to do so again.

Meanwhile, the Sun reports that veterans who served in Northern Ireland face “fresh torment” as up to 50 ‘legacy inquests’ will launch within weeks, with more than a fifth of all deaths being investigated involving the military.

Ex-servicemen will be called to give evidence into historical killings, and some fear they may face prosecution – even after republican terrorists who commissioned atrocities such as the Brighton bombing have walked free.

Johnny Mercer, who recently quit the Government after accusing the Northern Ireland Office of ‘dragging its feet’ when it came to protecting British troops, attacked some of the inquests as “beyond parody”, including as they do events where “you had IRA men firing automatic weapons and detonating a device trying to kill RUC officers”.

Catch-up: Douglas Ross on the election results

Yesterday, I chaired our latest Zoon event on ‘Scotland the the Future of the Union’ featuring Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, alongside Mandy Rhodes of Holyrood magazine and Professor Nicola McEwan from the Centre for Constitutional Change.

If you missed it, the full video is now available and you can watch it here.

Stephen Booth: Is the Government drawing nearer to suspending the Northern Ireland Protocol?

20 May

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

The post-Brexit policy landscape will inevitably require a degree of triangulation between the government’s domestic agenda, the non-EU trade partnerships it is seeking to develop, and implementing the new relationship with Europe. Appearing before parliamentary committees in both Houses of Parliament this week, Lord Frost touched on all three aspects.

Frost said that post-Brexit regulatory reform is likely to reflect a change in culture, consistent with the “lighter-touch” common law approach, rather than the more prescriptive methods often found in EU legislation. “We have internalised principles of EU law and EU ways of thinking about things for the last 50 years,” he said.

Following reports that hopes are fading of a deal with the EU on so-called ‘equivalence’ for financial services, the Government is examining how to use its new regulatory flexibility outside of the EU to secure the competitiveness of the City. A new unit, which will solicit thinking from outside government and report to Frost, will identify and implement opportunities in additional areas. It could usefully draw on a recent Policy Exchange report, which set out a range of potential options in fields ranging from health to energy and the environment.

Meanwhile, Frost warned that the relationship with the EU could be “bumpy for a time”, chiefly due to the problems arising from implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, where things seem to be heading for another political crunch in the summer.

There have been some recent signs that the UK-EU relationship could bed down towards something like a “new normal”. Last month, the European Parliament finally rubber-stamped the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). MEPs delayed their ratification following the UK’s decision to unilaterally extend grace periods for new checks on certain products crossing the Irish Sea. The chance of a veto was always very slim, but ratification has removed the threat of a cliff edge.

Days later, a months-long row over the status of the EU’s ambassador in London concluded with a UK-EU agreement, granting the EU delegation a status equivalent to that of a state.  A joint statement said the agreement had been reached through “goodwill and pragmatism”.

Meanwhile, the latest trade data suggests UK goods exports to the EU are recovering after a big fall in January when the new trade regime came into force. The long-term picture has yet to develop, since it is still too early to disentangle the effects of the pandemic versus the Brexit change, and there isn’t yet comprehensive data for services.

Nevertheless, the Office for National Statistics figures show that in March goods exports to the EU were close to their levels in December, before the UK’s departure from the Single Market and Customs Union. Notably, imports from the EU have not recovered as quickly, despite the fact the Government has postponed the introduction of some checks at UK ports.

However, the problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol continue to loom large. Frost told MPs that the “chilling effect” the Protocol is having on Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade is contributing to “the unrest and political developments we are seeing”.

There has always been a fundamental difference in the UK and EU approaches to how the Protocol should work. Last year’s row over the Internal Market Bill was defused with temporary fixes, including grace periods for various checks. The UK has attempted to implement the Protocol on this basis but the situation on the ground has illustrated that the current approach cannot be made to work. And it is worth noting that the problems that businesses are currently experiencing are likely to get worse if solutions aren’t found before the various grace periods expire. This is particularly the case for food products and supermarket supply chains.

The resignation of Arlene Foster as First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist party has underlined the degree of political turbulence ignited by the EU’s move in January, when it proposed using Article 16 of the Protocol to impose an export ban on vaccines. Foster’s successor as DUP leader, Edwin Poots, this week demanded “meaningful action that dismantles the Northern Ireland Protocol”.

The UK has not ruled out triggering Article 16 itself if it is not possible to reach a deal in the coming weeks. “We continue to consider all the options,” Frost said. “I’d like to think that if we were to take measures of any kind that support the stability of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, that the EU would not make that more difficult by reacting to it.”

Against this backdrop of rising political tension, technical talks in the UK-EU Joint Committee, headed by Frost and European Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, are ongoing.

The UK says it is pushing for an agreement that recognises that UK and EU standards are equivalent, if not exactly the same, which would reduce the need for checks. It also wants legally flexible solutions based on the genuine and precise risks of products entering the single market, rather than remaining in Northern Ireland. Firms – such as supermarkets – that have consistent data to prove their goods are only sold in Northern Ireland could see checks waived. Such arrangements might be subject to safeguards and review if the EU could demonstrate persistent leakage into the single market.

On Monday, a leaked UK “roadmap”, reported by the BBC, appeared somewhat at odds with the wider UK rhetoric about fundamental reform to the operation of the Protocol, since it included plans to phase in new Irish Sea border checks on food products in four stages from October.

Frost stressed the leaked document was “evolving”. And it should be noted that the partial extracts in the public domain include the UK’s broad ambition to put in place “risk-based long-term solutions”, recognising the “low risk of retail movements by trusted traders that do not leave the UK’s internal market”. The question is: what the UK will do if the EU does not agree to this?

The EU has emphasised that solutions must be found within the bounds of EU law, or else the integrity of the Single Market will be compromised. Brussels, therefore, wants the UK to align wholesale with EU food safety rules, possibly on a temporary basis. Frost ruled this out again this week. “That doesn’t work for us and isn’t going to be the solution,” he said, noting that full-scale alignment would reduce the UK’s flexibility in current trade talks with the likes of Australia.

Brussels has downplayed the extent of the disagreement, saying this week that the talks are “making progress”. In contrast, Frost said, “it is not hugely productive, and we will have to see how far we can take it.”

Unless something changes, something must give. It is in the EU’s interests to portray this as a technocratic dispute. The EU can opt to hold out for UK alignment with its rules, but the stakes are rising. The future politics of the Protocol are hugely unpredictable several years out from a Stormont consent vote on the trade arrangements in 2024.

And the longer this goes on, the stronger the UK’s argument that theoretical and hypothetical risks to the Single Market are overriding political stability in Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly, triggering Article 16 would be messy and be likely to spark EU retaliation, which could plunge UK-EU relations to a new low. But the UK is right to point out that the EU took on commitments and responsibilities to both communities in Northern Ireland when it agreed to the Protocol.

It should be in all sides interests to avoid reaching a full-blown crisis. This is a problem that could be solved with legal creativity and pragmatism on both sides. The UK-EU relationship retains the potential for volatility until the arrangements in Northern Ireland are made politically sustainable.

One, two, three – and now Truss tops our Cabinet League Table for the fourth time

4 Apr

The table now seems to be in set pattern established soon after Britian’s vaccination success became apparent.

The same Ministers remain at its top and the same too at its bottom.  Consider the case of Kwasi Kwarteng, up a place this month at fourth: his score, 64.7, is exactly the same as it was then.

There are a mix of small score and table movements up and down, but none of them worth expending many words about – though we pause for the Ministers at the very top and bottom of the table.

At the top, there is Liz Truss, on her fourth table-topping month – and a record high of 89 per cent.

That’s a reflection, in a minor key, of her decisive handling of the Equalities brief and, in a major one, of the rapid succession of trade deals: most of them rollovers, true – but accomplished more speedily than some anticipated.

At the bottom, there is Gavin Williamson – on minus 27 per cent.

That’s a dreadful rating, but less so than the -43 per cent he scored last month, or this – 36 per cent and -48 per cent during the previous ones.

Our reading is that his early and emphatic support for free speech during the Batley Mohammed cartoons row, which we haven’t heard the last of, accounts for his improvement.