Robert Halfon: Johnson’s coming Party Conference needs to show voters that we’re on their side

23 Sep

What is conservatism for?

As we grapple with new measures to help us climb down from ‘Coronavirus Everest’ (and weather a few Covid storms along the way), our virtual Party Conference next week is an important opportunity to redefine what being a Conservative is all about.

The Government talks about ‘levelling up’. But this is not always easy to pin down. Ask anyone what it means to them and you will get some very different answers. One person questioned if it is about money for potholes. Another asked if it was a new level on a Nintendo Switch game.

Similarly, Tories often mention ‘social mobility’. But to those outside Westminster, this has little resonance – resembling more a strapline for a new Vodafone commercial than a proposal to extend the ladder of opportunity.

Of course, the Government’s messaging about new hospitals, more police and increased funding for our schools is welcome, but as so often with such announcements, it comes over as a kalashnikov firing off initiatives, with nothing linking it all together; a series of bullets without a target.

In order to make a case to the public, surely the first thing to do must be to signpost Conservative values. That way, even if policies go awry, if they need to be changed or the Government faces problems, there is more chance of the public giving us the benefit of the doubt (at least for a time).

At present – perhaps exacerbated by the pandemic – it is hard to know whether Toryism is for freedom or for authoritarianism, for individual aspiration or family and community, for fiscal conservatism or ending austerity. The only thing in which there is certainty, is Brexit. But this is not enough in itself.

I hope Boris Johnson will use his speech for the Conservative Party Conference as a means of setting out what his brand of conservatism is. Of course, we need a bit of ‘boosterism’ to lift our spirits at this time. But how about a definition of Conservative values for the times we live in? Something we can explain on the doorsteps to an anxious electorate. A conservatism that really shows people we are on their side.

Watch Starmer

In the Commons Tea Room a few days ago, while I was chatting with a down-to-earth, rising star Conservative MP, he made a very eloquent case as to why the Labour Party faces insurmountable challenges at the next election.  His argument was Keir Starmer’s lack of charisma, the incoming Labour civil war and the electoral hurdles the party must overcome, mean that the Opposition is unlikely to win in four or five years time.

Sadly, I don’t agree with my esteemed colleague. Starmer is slowly climbing in the polls: the latest YouGov showed level-pegging to the Tories. Even if this is because of the Coronavirus, it does not matter. Once up, is it really likely that Labour polling figures will go back to Jeremy Corbyn levels?

By stealth, under the cover of Covid-19, he is changing the Labour Party, moving it to one based on social democracy, rather than red-blooded socialism.

In his own conference speech yesterday, Starmer has moved to slay the Corbyn shibboleths. Taking on the mantle of patriotism, appealing to workers, is a pretty big repudiation of Corbynism. His Chief Adviser, Claire Ainsley, wrote a book about Blue-Collar Britain entitled, ‘How to win hearts and minds of the new working class’.

Expect more of her ideas to be reflected in the development of Labour policy. It is notable that the Shadow Chancellor has not committed Labour to any tax rises at present, nor big public spending programmes. This will make it harder for Conservatives to attack the Opposition on grounds of more borrowing, more spending and more debt.

On television, Starmer comes over as reasonable, rather than dogmatic. However, the flip-flopping on policy, his ‘Captain Hindsight’ persona, the “forensic analysis” that does not see the political wood for the trees, are all flaws that can be exploited by the Tories.

In addition, Labour’s refusal to make any hard choices in terms of cutting Government spending – and the continued presence of many hard-left activists in the constituencies – could act as a real brake on the party’s progress.

The public, who are weary and exhausted from Coronavirus, might just vote for Labour, just as they did in 1945. After all, in four years’ time, Conservatives will have been in power for nearly 15 years. “Time for change” might be a mantra that the public can be persuaded by, especially if voting Labour doesn’t frighten the horses.

My MP colleague may be right and the electoral maths may make it impossible for Labour to win next time. But with a volatile electorate and the option of a social democrat party on the ballot paper – with which most of the public’s economic views align – they certainly could present a real challenge to the Tories.

A book on the Cameron years you should read

I am not talking about Sasha Swire’s tome on “the County Set meet Notting Hill”, but a brilliant memoir by Baroness Fall on the Cameron years: ‘The Gatekeeper. Life at the Heart of No 10.

This is a book about the mechanics of politics; it is like reading about the engine of a sleek car, rather than the story of the car itself. You learn a lot about the workings of a Prime Minister’s Office and it is well worth a read.

My favourite part, so far, is the account of former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, crashing his automobile in the Department for Education car park, trying to put his car into the vehicle lift to get to the parking space.

I know a little about this lift, having had the same thing happen to me when I was Skills Minister (although, I just scraped mine, rather than denting) and have concluded that it is seemingly only built for drivers of Lewis Hamilton’s calibre. I found the whole experience quite terrifying, since it reminded me of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the cave walls close in. I never used that car lift again.

What could give the Government a sense of purpose – and chances to achieve? Making Gove Deputy Prime Minister.

18 Sep

Boris Johnson has a majority of 80, the Conservatives are still above 40 per cent in the polls, there is no leadership challenge pending, and there are still over four years to go until the next election.

But the Tory press this week is behaving as though none of that applies.  It hasn’t given up on the possibility of the Prime Minister winning in 2024.  However, it seems close to abandoning hope of him achieving anything substantial before then.

The joint catalyst of this development has been the Government’s adventures with international law, to which many voters are indifferent.  And its handling of the Coronavirus, to which they are not.  The common theme is that the country is all at sea, and that the captain has no sense of direction – or grip.

It may be that the media, some Tory MPs and Party donors are getting everything out of proportion.  The hysterical anti-Johnson hyperbole from the Remainer residue certainly muddies the waters.  To give an example almost at random, one prominent pro-Remain journalist once implied that Johnson’s Covid illness was faked.

None the less, ConservativeHome thinks that the critics have a point – and then some – for two solid reasons.  The first is all to do with the unique circumstances of last December’s election.  Johnson was elected to Get Brexit Done and spend a lot of money: at least, that’s what the hostage-free Tory manifesto suggested.

He has delivered Brexit as most voters see it (even if there is no trade deal), and his spending plans have been absorbed by the Coronavirus crisis, along with nearly everything else.  “Levelling up” is on hold.  So is the economy.  The manifesto had no programme for public service reform in any event.

If it had, the virus would make its delivery all but impossible. Covid means all hands to the pump, unless the Prime Minister is prepared to let the disease which put him in intensive care let rip.  That isn’t going to happen.  Global Britain may not either, at least if one means by it a coherent approach to China, Russia and radical Islamism.

The second reason is all bound up with Johnson himself.  We endorsed him last summer as “not the Prime Minister we deserve, but the Prime Minister we need right now”.  By which we meant that his character, gifts and personality are best shaped for campaigning rather than government.

Just before he made up his mind to declare for Brexit, he told friends that he was “veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”.  That captures the essence of how he works when trying to deliver many ends, as one must in office, rather than single one, as is the case in elections.

A shopping trolley can’t move on its own.  It needs someone to direct it.  That person is thought by those demented Remainers to be Dominic Cummings.  Certainly, parts of the Government’s programme are Cummings-driven: upending the civil service, challenging judicial power, overhauling procurement, “investing in science”.

But Cummings’ hands are only some of those on the trolley.  His old Parliamentary supporters, Simon Case, colleagues from his London mayoralty days, Carrie Symonds: all these and others push and pull at Johnson, who has no enduring ideology of his own to steer by, and can be as indecisive in private as he is bombastic in public.

We don’t mean to suggest that the Prime Minister has no beliefs.  He does, and his experience in City Hall has shaped them.  He wants to build more houses (good for him), invest in infrastructure, spend money on policing – and he has liberal instincts on immigration, as Government policy confirms.

But these are not so much convictions as impulses.  This is not the man to throw himself into the culture wars, as his response to the Black Lives Matter eruption confirms.  Rather, he is Lord Stanley, pitching in to the Bosworths of the conflict only when they’ve already been decided.  So it was with Churchill’s statue and the Proms.

The big point is that his response to Covid-19 is in deep trouble.  Success would see test and track taking the strain this winter.  Instead, regional lockdowns have already kicked in, and it’s only September.  The Government wants life at work to be as close to the old normal as possible, but life at home to be a new normal – under compulsion.

Hence marshalls, curfews and the rule of six.  Last spring, voters swung behind the Prime Minister as they’ve sometimes swung behind others when wars break out.  Now, there is war-weariness.  The winter is shaping up ominously and the Parliamentary Party is skittish.

At this stage in editorials, the usual course is to reiterate advice.  Appoint better Cabinet Ministers – not just people who voted for you.  Find an Andrew Mackay-type figure to take the backbench temperature.  Get a single, strong Party Chairman.

We add: forget trying to carry out, in current cirumstances, a spending review that looks more than a year ahead.  Concentrate on sorting testing, keeping schools open – and saving the Union; concede that turning the civil service upside-down will have to wait; prepare for a pro-EU Biden presidency.  But there is a fundamental problem.

Johnson just isn’t the man to exercise self-discipline outside an election campaign.  This is integral to what makes him so interesting: As Sasha Swire puts it, he has a “greatness of soul…and best of all a wonderful comic vision of the human condition. He is not like any politician I have ever encountered before, and I have met many.”

He will carry on boostering about moonshots, world-beating systems and (James Forsyth writes this morning) hydrogen.  It’s a form of manic defence.  A David Cameron would think tactically; a Margaret Thatcher strategically.  But the Prime Minister doesn’t think so much as intuit.  And will carry on doing so because that’s how he is.

Perhaps memory can reach where advice can’t.  Johnson has worked at his best when he lurches noisily forwards and someone follows quietly behind, carrying a dustpan and brush: Simon Milton in London (then Eddie Lister), Stuart Reid at the Spectator.  To put it more neutrally, he performs and someone else administers.

The safe, secure choice to do this now would be Oliver Dowden.  The one that would cause a sensation, explode a mass of leadership speculation and conspiracy theory, and drag up horrible memories of commitment and betrayal would be the psycho-dramatic appointment of Michael Gove.

The media’s field day could last for the rest of this Parliament.  But in the meantime, Gove would get on with what he does better than any Minister other than perhaps Rishi Sunak: strategic thinking – and messaging – government with a purpose, and zeal for reform.

The planned New Year reshuffle would be the right time for the change, though we admit that it almost certainly won’t happen.  All the same, the Government’s shaping up to be in its own bleak midwinter by then.  Sure, the next election is there to be won.  And never underestimate Johnson’s strange bond with a big slice of the British people.

But getting the state’s creaking machinery up to responding to Covid, let alone achieving much before 2024, depends on him doing what all of us find it hardest to do: changing what he does; almost who he is.

Stephen Booth: Why the row about the Northern Ireland Protocol suggests that the EU’s position isn’t quite as strong as it likes to think

17 Sep

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

It is often said that Brexit is low on the list of the EU’s priorities. That national capitals have not been fully engaged in a process which they have delegated to Michel Barnier and the European Commission. The introduction of the Government’s Internal Market Bill has certainly got the EU’s attention.

The events of the last two weeks have upped the ante, but the two sides continue to talk and a deal between the UK and the EU is still possible, if the political appetite is there.

As I noted in my previous column, the negotiations over a new UK-EU free trade agreement have been locked in a stalemate over fishing and state aid for weeks, and a compromise can only be unlocked by high-level political intervention.

At the same time, a parallel, and up to now seemingly boring, process has been underway to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. It has long been clear that the UK and the EU have significant disagreements to resolve in the Joint Committee, the forum established under the Withdrawal Agreement empowered to iron out the practical details of the Protocol’s implementation.

In its May 2020 Command Paper on the subject, the UK identified its practical concerns. For example, under the Protocol, Northern Ireland is subject to the Union’s Customs Code, which requires exit summary declarations for goods leaving the area to which the rules apply.

However, the UK’s view is that export or exit summary declarations should not be required for NI to GB trade (since Article 6 of the Protocol states that nothing in the Protocol should prevent NI businesses from having “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK).

Removing this requirement should not be particularly controversial, since Northern Ireland will remain in the UK’s customs territory (as stipulated in Article 4 of the Protocol) and therefore any risk of complaints about the arrangements in terms of international obligations should rest with the UK, rather than the EU.

Another, more significant issue is the status of goods travelling from GB to NI deemed to be “at risk” of entering the EU (and therefore subject to EU tariffs). The Joint Committee is tasked with defining which goods are “at risk” and therefore broadening the scope of goods that would not be subject to tariffs. However, the default is that goods are “at risk”, unless the Joint Committee agrees otherwise.

The powers taken in the Internal Market Bill are advertised as an “insurance policy” to be used in the event of failure to address the UK’s concerns about the Protocol (which include the state aid provisions as well as exit summary declarations) via agreement within the Joint Committee and/or via a free trade agreement. There are reports that the Government plans to use the forthcoming Finance Bill to give itself similar powers with regard to tariffs.

Leaving aside the legalities and the domestic politics for a moment, why might the UK have decided to initiate a row with Brussels now and pre-empt the Joint Committee process? Of course, we cannot divine the precise motivation. Perhaps no deal is now seen as an inevitable, or at least probable, outcome by some in Government? But the logic of the negotiations offers another plausible rationale.

Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the wider free trade negotiations are theoretically on distinct tracks. While the Withdrawal Agreement committed both parties to seek to negotiate a free trade agreement in good faith, the Protocol comes into effect at the end of the transition period irrespective of any UK-EU trade agreement.

However, it is clear from the way the negotiations have been structured (at the strong insistence of Brussels) that the trade negotiation and the practical functioning of the Protocol are linked, and this gives the EU leverage over the trade negotiations. Since EU negotiators are not obliged to reach compromises in the Joint Committee on the issues causing the UK concern, they are able to hold the process up in order to apply pressure to the UK in the wider trade negotiation. Just because the EU is within its rights to do so, does not mean it should.

What the Government is doing, for better or worse, is to suggest to the EU that its leverage is not quite as strong as it would like to think. Ultimately, under the Protocol it is UK officials and agencies who will be tasked with enforcing EU rules. Realistically speaking, how plausible is it that the UK would do so zealously in a scenario where not only have the UK and the EU failed to reach a trade agreement, but the EU is also insisting on its maximalist interpretation of the Protocol?

The UK might have made this point more subtly if it had made clear that any measures it takes in the future would be strictly consistent with Article 16 of the Protocol, which allows either party to take unilaterally “appropriate safeguards” if the application of the Protocol leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, and its pre-existing commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.

Equally, it should also be noted that the UK is not declining to implement other important aspects of the Protocol. Indeed, as Michael Gove noted in closing Monday’s debate and Brandon Lewis repeated in committee evidence yesterday morning, the UK is erecting border-inspection posts for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, which in an ideal world it would not have to and despite the opposition of the DUP.

Ultimately, what this row demonstrates is that a negotiated settlement on the Protocol and the wider trade issues should be preferable for both sides compared to an acrimonious breakdown in the UK-EU relationship. Indeed, the UK legislation introduced this week would be redundant if compromises can be reached.

A Protocol that is politically sustainable is in the EU’s interests. Equally, a UK-EU trade agreement would not remove all of the irritations thrown up by the Protocol but it could certainly help to smooth over some of the important issues. If there are no tariffs between the UK and the EU, there is less risk to the EU of goods entering the Single Market at a lower tariff. If the EU and UK reach agreements on SPS, like the EU has with New Zealand, then paperwork could be simplified. Equally, establishing a UK domestic subsidy regime, recognised by the EU in a free trade agreement, would help prevent the “reach back” of the state aid provisions in the Protocol that are also of concern to the UK.

Only time will tell if this episode is the beginning of the path to a deal or the point when things turned sour.

Stephen Booth: Why the row about the Northern Ireland Protocol suggests that the EU’s position isn’t quite as strong as it likes to think

17 Sep

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

It is often said that Brexit is low on the list of the EU’s priorities. That national capitals have not been fully engaged in a process which they have delegated to Michel Barnier and the European Commission. The introduction of the Government’s Internal Market Bill has certainly got the EU’s attention.

The events of the last two weeks have upped the ante, but the two sides continue to talk and a deal between the UK and the EU is still possible, if the political appetite is there.

As I noted in my previous column, the negotiations over a new UK-EU free trade agreement have been locked in a stalemate over fishing and state aid for weeks, and a compromise can only be unlocked by high-level political intervention.

At the same time, a parallel, and up to now seemingly boring, process has been underway to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. It has long been clear that the UK and the EU have significant disagreements to resolve in the Joint Committee, the forum established under the Withdrawal Agreement empowered to iron out the practical details of the Protocol’s implementation.

In its May 2020 Command Paper on the subject, the UK identified its practical concerns. For example, under the Protocol, Northern Ireland is subject to the Union’s Customs Code, which requires exit summary declarations for goods leaving the area to which the rules apply.

However, the UK’s view is that export or exit summary declarations should not be required for NI to GB trade (since Article 6 of the Protocol states that nothing in the Protocol should prevent NI businesses from having “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK).

Removing this requirement should not be particularly controversial, since Northern Ireland will remain in the UK’s customs territory (as stipulated in Article 4 of the Protocol) and therefore any risk of complaints about the arrangements in terms of international obligations should rest with the UK, rather than the EU.

Another, more significant issue is the status of goods travelling from GB to NI deemed to be “at risk” of entering the EU (and therefore subject to EU tariffs). The Joint Committee is tasked with defining which goods are “at risk” and therefore broadening the scope of goods that would not be subject to tariffs. However, the default is that goods are “at risk”, unless the Joint Committee agrees otherwise.

The powers taken in the Internal Market Bill are advertised as an “insurance policy” to be used in the event of failure to address the UK’s concerns about the Protocol (which include the state aid provisions as well as exit summary declarations) via agreement within the Joint Committee and/or via a free trade agreement. There are reports that the Government plans to use the forthcoming Finance Bill to give itself similar powers with regard to tariffs.

Leaving aside the legalities and the domestic politics for a moment, why might the UK have decided to initiate a row with Brussels now and pre-empt the Joint Committee process? Of course, we cannot divine the precise motivation. Perhaps no deal is now seen as an inevitable, or at least probable, outcome by some in Government? But the logic of the negotiations offers another plausible rationale.

Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the wider free trade negotiations are theoretically on distinct tracks. While the Withdrawal Agreement committed both parties to seek to negotiate a free trade agreement in good faith, the Protocol comes into effect at the end of the transition period irrespective of any UK-EU trade agreement.

However, it is clear from the way the negotiations have been structured (at the strong insistence of Brussels) that the trade negotiation and the practical functioning of the Protocol are linked, and this gives the EU leverage over the trade negotiations. Since EU negotiators are not obliged to reach compromises in the Joint Committee on the issues causing the UK concern, they are able to hold the process up in order to apply pressure to the UK in the wider trade negotiation. Just because the EU is within its rights to do so, does not mean it should.

What the Government is doing, for better or worse, is to suggest to the EU that its leverage is not quite as strong as it would like to think. Ultimately, under the Protocol it is UK officials and agencies who will be tasked with enforcing EU rules. Realistically speaking, how plausible is it that the UK would do so zealously in a scenario where not only have the UK and the EU failed to reach a trade agreement, but the EU is also insisting on its maximalist interpretation of the Protocol?

The UK might have made this point more subtly if it had made clear that any measures it takes in the future would be strictly consistent with Article 16 of the Protocol, which allows either party to take unilaterally “appropriate safeguards” if the application of the Protocol leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, and its pre-existing commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.

Equally, it should also be noted that the UK is not declining to implement other important aspects of the Protocol. Indeed, as Michael Gove noted in closing Monday’s debate and Brandon Lewis repeated in committee evidence yesterday morning, the UK is erecting border-inspection posts for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, which in an ideal world it would not have to and despite the opposition of the DUP.

Ultimately, what this row demonstrates is that a negotiated settlement on the Protocol and the wider trade issues should be preferable for both sides compared to an acrimonious breakdown in the UK-EU relationship. Indeed, the UK legislation introduced this week would be redundant if compromises can be reached.

A Protocol that is politically sustainable is in the EU’s interests. Equally, a UK-EU trade agreement would not remove all of the irritations thrown up by the Protocol but it could certainly help to smooth over some of the important issues. If there are no tariffs between the UK and the EU, there is less risk to the EU of goods entering the Single Market at a lower tariff. If the EU and UK reach agreements on SPS, like the EU has with New Zealand, then paperwork could be simplified. Equally, establishing a UK domestic subsidy regime, recognised by the EU in a free trade agreement, would help prevent the “reach back” of the state aid provisions in the Protocol that are also of concern to the UK.

Only time will tell if this episode is the beginning of the path to a deal or the point when things turned sour.

Stephen Booth: Why the row about the Northern Ireland Protocol suggests that the EU’s position isn’t quite as strong as it likes to think

17 Sep

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

It is often said that Brexit is low on the list of the EU’s priorities. That national capitals have not been fully engaged in a process which they have delegated to Michel Barnier and the European Commission. The introduction of the Government’s Internal Market Bill has certainly got the EU’s attention.

The events of the last two weeks have upped the ante, but the two sides continue to talk and a deal between the UK and the EU is still possible, if the political appetite is there.

As I noted in my previous column, the negotiations over a new UK-EU free trade agreement have been locked in a stalemate over fishing and state aid for weeks, and a compromise can only be unlocked by high-level political intervention.

At the same time, a parallel, and up to now seemingly boring, process has been underway to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. It has long been clear that the UK and the EU have significant disagreements to resolve in the Joint Committee, the forum established under the Withdrawal Agreement empowered to iron out the practical details of the Protocol’s implementation.

In its May 2020 Command Paper on the subject, the UK identified its practical concerns. For example, under the Protocol, Northern Ireland is subject to the Union’s Customs Code, which requires exit summary declarations for goods leaving the area to which the rules apply.

However, the UK’s view is that export or exit summary declarations should not be required for NI to GB trade (since Article 6 of the Protocol states that nothing in the Protocol should prevent NI businesses from having “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK).

Removing this requirement should not be particularly controversial, since Northern Ireland will remain in the UK’s customs territory (as stipulated in Article 4 of the Protocol) and therefore any risk of complaints about the arrangements in terms of international obligations should rest with the UK, rather than the EU.

Another, more significant issue is the status of goods travelling from GB to NI deemed to be “at risk” of entering the EU (and therefore subject to EU tariffs). The Joint Committee is tasked with defining which goods are “at risk” and therefore broadening the scope of goods that would not be subject to tariffs. However, the default is that goods are “at risk”, unless the Joint Committee agrees otherwise.

The powers taken in the Internal Market Bill are advertised as an “insurance policy” to be used in the event of failure to address the UK’s concerns about the Protocol (which include the state aid provisions as well as exit summary declarations) via agreement within the Joint Committee and/or via a free trade agreement. There are reports that the Government plans to use the forthcoming Finance Bill to give itself similar powers with regard to tariffs.

Leaving aside the legalities and the domestic politics for a moment, why might the UK have decided to initiate a row with Brussels now and pre-empt the Joint Committee process? Of course, we cannot divine the precise motivation. Perhaps no deal is now seen as an inevitable, or at least probable, outcome by some in Government? But the logic of the negotiations offers another plausible rationale.

Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the wider free trade negotiations are theoretically on distinct tracks. While the Withdrawal Agreement committed both parties to seek to negotiate a free trade agreement in good faith, the Protocol comes into effect at the end of the transition period irrespective of any UK-EU trade agreement.

However, it is clear from the way the negotiations have been structured (at the strong insistence of Brussels) that the trade negotiation and the practical functioning of the Protocol are linked, and this gives the EU leverage over the trade negotiations. Since EU negotiators are not obliged to reach compromises in the Joint Committee on the issues causing the UK concern, they are able to hold the process up in order to apply pressure to the UK in the wider trade negotiation. Just because the EU is within its rights to do so, does not mean it should.

What the Government is doing, for better or worse, is to suggest to the EU that its leverage is not quite as strong as it would like to think. Ultimately, under the Protocol it is UK officials and agencies who will be tasked with enforcing EU rules. Realistically speaking, how plausible is it that the UK would do so zealously in a scenario where not only have the UK and the EU failed to reach a trade agreement, but the EU is also insisting on its maximalist interpretation of the Protocol?

The UK might have made this point more subtly if it had made clear that any measures it takes in the future would be strictly consistent with Article 16 of the Protocol, which allows either party to take unilaterally “appropriate safeguards” if the application of the Protocol leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, and its pre-existing commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.

Equally, it should also be noted that the UK is not declining to implement other important aspects of the Protocol. Indeed, as Michael Gove noted in closing Monday’s debate and Brandon Lewis repeated in committee evidence yesterday morning, the UK is erecting border-inspection posts for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, which in an ideal world it would not have to and despite the opposition of the DUP.

Ultimately, what this row demonstrates is that a negotiated settlement on the Protocol and the wider trade issues should be preferable for both sides compared to an acrimonious breakdown in the UK-EU relationship. Indeed, the UK legislation introduced this week would be redundant if compromises can be reached.

A Protocol that is politically sustainable is in the EU’s interests. Equally, a UK-EU trade agreement would not remove all of the irritations thrown up by the Protocol but it could certainly help to smooth over some of the important issues. If there are no tariffs between the UK and the EU, there is less risk to the EU of goods entering the Single Market at a lower tariff. If the EU and UK reach agreements on SPS, like the EU has with New Zealand, then paperwork could be simplified. Equally, establishing a UK domestic subsidy regime, recognised by the EU in a free trade agreement, would help prevent the “reach back” of the state aid provisions in the Protocol that are also of concern to the UK.

Only time will tell if this episode is the beginning of the path to a deal or the point when things turned sour.

Stephen Booth: Why the row about the Northern Ireland Protocol suggests that the EU’s position isn’t quite as strong as it likes to think

17 Sep

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

It is often said that Brexit is low on the list of the EU’s priorities. That national capitals have not been fully engaged in a process which they have delegated to Michel Barnier and the European Commission. The introduction of the Government’s Internal Market Bill has certainly got the EU’s attention.

The events of the last two weeks have upped the ante, but the two sides continue to talk and a deal between the UK and the EU is still possible, if the political appetite is there.

As I noted in my previous column, the negotiations over a new UK-EU free trade agreement have been locked in a stalemate over fishing and state aid for weeks, and a compromise can only be unlocked by high-level political intervention.

At the same time, a parallel, and up to now seemingly boring, process has been underway to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. It has long been clear that the UK and the EU have significant disagreements to resolve in the Joint Committee, the forum established under the Withdrawal Agreement empowered to iron out the practical details of the Protocol’s implementation.

In its May 2020 Command Paper on the subject, the UK identified its practical concerns. For example, under the Protocol, Northern Ireland is subject to the Union’s Customs Code, which requires exit summary declarations for goods leaving the area to which the rules apply.

However, the UK’s view is that export or exit summary declarations should not be required for NI to GB trade (since Article 6 of the Protocol states that nothing in the Protocol should prevent NI businesses from having “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK).

Removing this requirement should not be particularly controversial, since Northern Ireland will remain in the UK’s customs territory (as stipulated in Article 4 of the Protocol) and therefore any risk of complaints about the arrangements in terms of international obligations should rest with the UK, rather than the EU.

Another, more significant issue is the status of goods travelling from GB to NI deemed to be “at risk” of entering the EU (and therefore subject to EU tariffs). The Joint Committee is tasked with defining which goods are “at risk” and therefore broadening the scope of goods that would not be subject to tariffs. However, the default is that goods are “at risk”, unless the Joint Committee agrees otherwise.

The powers taken in the Internal Market Bill are advertised as an “insurance policy” to be used in the event of failure to address the UK’s concerns about the Protocol (which include the state aid provisions as well as exit summary declarations) via agreement within the Joint Committee and/or via a free trade agreement. There are reports that the Government plans to use the forthcoming Finance Bill to give itself similar powers with regard to tariffs.

Leaving aside the legalities and the domestic politics for a moment, why might the UK have decided to initiate a row with Brussels now and pre-empt the Joint Committee process? Of course, we cannot divine the precise motivation. Perhaps no deal is now seen as an inevitable, or at least probable, outcome by some in Government? But the logic of the negotiations offers another plausible rationale.

Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the wider free trade negotiations are theoretically on distinct tracks. While the Withdrawal Agreement committed both parties to seek to negotiate a free trade agreement in good faith, the Protocol comes into effect at the end of the transition period irrespective of any UK-EU trade agreement.

However, it is clear from the way the negotiations have been structured (at the strong insistence of Brussels) that the trade negotiation and the practical functioning of the Protocol are linked, and this gives the EU leverage over the trade negotiations. Since EU negotiators are not obliged to reach compromises in the Joint Committee on the issues causing the UK concern, they are able to hold the process up in order to apply pressure to the UK in the wider trade negotiation. Just because the EU is within its rights to do so, does not mean it should.

What the Government is doing, for better or worse, is to suggest to the EU that its leverage is not quite as strong as it would like to think. Ultimately, under the Protocol it is UK officials and agencies who will be tasked with enforcing EU rules. Realistically speaking, how plausible is it that the UK would do so zealously in a scenario where not only have the UK and the EU failed to reach a trade agreement, but the EU is also insisting on its maximalist interpretation of the Protocol?

The UK might have made this point more subtly if it had made clear that any measures it takes in the future would be strictly consistent with Article 16 of the Protocol, which allows either party to take unilaterally “appropriate safeguards” if the application of the Protocol leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, and its pre-existing commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.

Equally, it should also be noted that the UK is not declining to implement other important aspects of the Protocol. Indeed, as Michael Gove noted in closing Monday’s debate and Brandon Lewis repeated in committee evidence yesterday morning, the UK is erecting border-inspection posts for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, which in an ideal world it would not have to and despite the opposition of the DUP.

Ultimately, what this row demonstrates is that a negotiated settlement on the Protocol and the wider trade issues should be preferable for both sides compared to an acrimonious breakdown in the UK-EU relationship. Indeed, the UK legislation introduced this week would be redundant if compromises can be reached.

A Protocol that is politically sustainable is in the EU’s interests. Equally, a UK-EU trade agreement would not remove all of the irritations thrown up by the Protocol but it could certainly help to smooth over some of the important issues. If there are no tariffs between the UK and the EU, there is less risk to the EU of goods entering the Single Market at a lower tariff. If the EU and UK reach agreements on SPS, like the EU has with New Zealand, then paperwork could be simplified. Equally, establishing a UK domestic subsidy regime, recognised by the EU in a free trade agreement, would help prevent the “reach back” of the state aid provisions in the Protocol that are also of concern to the UK.

Only time will tell if this episode is the beginning of the path to a deal or the point when things turned sour.

Stephen Booth: Why the row about the Northern Ireland Protocol suggests that the EU’s position isn’t quite as strong as it likes to think

17 Sep

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

It is often said that Brexit is low on the list of the EU’s priorities. That national capitals have not been fully engaged in a process which they have delegated to Michel Barnier and the European Commission. The introduction of the Government’s Internal Market Bill has certainly got the EU’s attention.

The events of the last two weeks have upped the ante, but the two sides continue to talk and a deal between the UK and the EU is still possible, if the political appetite is there.

As I noted in my previous column, the negotiations over a new UK-EU free trade agreement have been locked in a stalemate over fishing and state aid for weeks, and a compromise can only be unlocked by high-level political intervention.

At the same time, a parallel, and up to now seemingly boring, process has been underway to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. It has long been clear that the UK and the EU have significant disagreements to resolve in the Joint Committee, the forum established under the Withdrawal Agreement empowered to iron out the practical details of the Protocol’s implementation.

In its May 2020 Command Paper on the subject, the UK identified its practical concerns. For example, under the Protocol, Northern Ireland is subject to the Union’s Customs Code, which requires exit summary declarations for goods leaving the area to which the rules apply.

However, the UK’s view is that export or exit summary declarations should not be required for NI to GB trade (since Article 6 of the Protocol states that nothing in the Protocol should prevent NI businesses from having “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK).

Removing this requirement should not be particularly controversial, since Northern Ireland will remain in the UK’s customs territory (as stipulated in Article 4 of the Protocol) and therefore any risk of complaints about the arrangements in terms of international obligations should rest with the UK, rather than the EU.

Another, more significant issue is the status of goods travelling from GB to NI deemed to be “at risk” of entering the EU (and therefore subject to EU tariffs). The Joint Committee is tasked with defining which goods are “at risk” and therefore broadening the scope of goods that would not be subject to tariffs. However, the default is that goods are “at risk”, unless the Joint Committee agrees otherwise.

The powers taken in the Internal Market Bill are advertised as an “insurance policy” to be used in the event of failure to address the UK’s concerns about the Protocol (which include the state aid provisions as well as exit summary declarations) via agreement within the Joint Committee and/or via a free trade agreement. There are reports that the Government plans to use the forthcoming Finance Bill to give itself similar powers with regard to tariffs.

Leaving aside the legalities and the domestic politics for a moment, why might the UK have decided to initiate a row with Brussels now and pre-empt the Joint Committee process? Of course, we cannot divine the precise motivation. Perhaps no deal is now seen as an inevitable, or at least probable, outcome by some in Government? But the logic of the negotiations offers another plausible rationale.

Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the wider free trade negotiations are theoretically on distinct tracks. While the Withdrawal Agreement committed both parties to seek to negotiate a free trade agreement in good faith, the Protocol comes into effect at the end of the transition period irrespective of any UK-EU trade agreement.

However, it is clear from the way the negotiations have been structured (at the strong insistence of Brussels) that the trade negotiation and the practical functioning of the Protocol are linked, and this gives the EU leverage over the trade negotiations. Since EU negotiators are not obliged to reach compromises in the Joint Committee on the issues causing the UK concern, they are able to hold the process up in order to apply pressure to the UK in the wider trade negotiation. Just because the EU is within its rights to do so, does not mean it should.

What the Government is doing, for better or worse, is to suggest to the EU that its leverage is not quite as strong as it would like to think. Ultimately, under the Protocol it is UK officials and agencies who will be tasked with enforcing EU rules. Realistically speaking, how plausible is it that the UK would do so zealously in a scenario where not only have the UK and the EU failed to reach a trade agreement, but the EU is also insisting on its maximalist interpretation of the Protocol?

The UK might have made this point more subtly if it had made clear that any measures it takes in the future would be strictly consistent with Article 16 of the Protocol, which allows either party to take unilaterally “appropriate safeguards” if the application of the Protocol leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, and its pre-existing commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.

Equally, it should also be noted that the UK is not declining to implement other important aspects of the Protocol. Indeed, as Michael Gove noted in closing Monday’s debate and Brandon Lewis repeated in committee evidence yesterday morning, the UK is erecting border-inspection posts for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, which in an ideal world it would not have to and despite the opposition of the DUP.

Ultimately, what this row demonstrates is that a negotiated settlement on the Protocol and the wider trade issues should be preferable for both sides compared to an acrimonious breakdown in the UK-EU relationship. Indeed, the UK legislation introduced this week would be redundant if compromises can be reached.

A Protocol that is politically sustainable is in the EU’s interests. Equally, a UK-EU trade agreement would not remove all of the irritations thrown up by the Protocol but it could certainly help to smooth over some of the important issues. If there are no tariffs between the UK and the EU, there is less risk to the EU of goods entering the Single Market at a lower tariff. If the EU and UK reach agreements on SPS, like the EU has with New Zealand, then paperwork could be simplified. Equally, establishing a UK domestic subsidy regime, recognised by the EU in a free trade agreement, would help prevent the “reach back” of the state aid provisions in the Protocol that are also of concern to the UK.

Only time will tell if this episode is the beginning of the path to a deal or the point when things turned sour.

Stephen Booth: Why the row about the Northern Ireland Protocol suggests that the EU’s position isn’t quite as strong as it likes to think

17 Sep

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

It is often said that Brexit is low on the list of the EU’s priorities. That national capitals have not been fully engaged in a process which they have delegated to Michel Barnier and the European Commission. The introduction of the Government’s Internal Market Bill has certainly got the EU’s attention.

The events of the last two weeks have upped the ante, but the two sides continue to talk and a deal between the UK and the EU is still possible, if the political appetite is there.

As I noted in my previous column, the negotiations over a new UK-EU free trade agreement have been locked in a stalemate over fishing and state aid for weeks, and a compromise can only be unlocked by high-level political intervention.

At the same time, a parallel, and up to now seemingly boring, process has been underway to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. It has long been clear that the UK and the EU have significant disagreements to resolve in the Joint Committee, the forum established under the Withdrawal Agreement empowered to iron out the practical details of the Protocol’s implementation.

In its May 2020 Command Paper on the subject, the UK identified its practical concerns. For example, under the Protocol, Northern Ireland is subject to the Union’s Customs Code, which requires exit summary declarations for goods leaving the area to which the rules apply.

However, the UK’s view is that export or exit summary declarations should not be required for NI to GB trade (since Article 6 of the Protocol states that nothing in the Protocol should prevent NI businesses from having “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK).

Removing this requirement should not be particularly controversial, since Northern Ireland will remain in the UK’s customs territory (as stipulated in Article 4 of the Protocol) and therefore any risk of complaints about the arrangements in terms of international obligations should rest with the UK, rather than the EU.

Another, more significant issue is the status of goods travelling from GB to NI deemed to be “at risk” of entering the EU (and therefore subject to EU tariffs). The Joint Committee is tasked with defining which goods are “at risk” and therefore broadening the scope of goods that would not be subject to tariffs. However, the default is that goods are “at risk”, unless the Joint Committee agrees otherwise.

The powers taken in the Internal Market Bill are advertised as an “insurance policy” to be used in the event of failure to address the UK’s concerns about the Protocol (which include the state aid provisions as well as exit summary declarations) via agreement within the Joint Committee and/or via a free trade agreement. There are reports that the Government plans to use the forthcoming Finance Bill to give itself similar powers with regard to tariffs.

Leaving aside the legalities and the domestic politics for a moment, why might the UK have decided to initiate a row with Brussels now and pre-empt the Joint Committee process? Of course, we cannot divine the precise motivation. Perhaps no deal is now seen as an inevitable, or at least probable, outcome by some in Government? But the logic of the negotiations offers another plausible rationale.

Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the wider free trade negotiations are theoretically on distinct tracks. While the Withdrawal Agreement committed both parties to seek to negotiate a free trade agreement in good faith, the Protocol comes into effect at the end of the transition period irrespective of any UK-EU trade agreement.

However, it is clear from the way the negotiations have been structured (at the strong insistence of Brussels) that the trade negotiation and the practical functioning of the Protocol are linked, and this gives the EU leverage over the trade negotiations. Since EU negotiators are not obliged to reach compromises in the Joint Committee on the issues causing the UK concern, they are able to hold the process up in order to apply pressure to the UK in the wider trade negotiation. Just because the EU is within its rights to do so, does not mean it should.

What the Government is doing, for better or worse, is to suggest to the EU that its leverage is not quite as strong as it would like to think. Ultimately, under the Protocol it is UK officials and agencies who will be tasked with enforcing EU rules. Realistically speaking, how plausible is it that the UK would do so zealously in a scenario where not only have the UK and the EU failed to reach a trade agreement, but the EU is also insisting on its maximalist interpretation of the Protocol?

The UK might have made this point more subtly if it had made clear that any measures it takes in the future would be strictly consistent with Article 16 of the Protocol, which allows either party to take unilaterally “appropriate safeguards” if the application of the Protocol leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, and its pre-existing commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.

Equally, it should also be noted that the UK is not declining to implement other important aspects of the Protocol. Indeed, as Michael Gove noted in closing Monday’s debate and Brandon Lewis repeated in committee evidence yesterday morning, the UK is erecting border-inspection posts for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, which in an ideal world it would not have to and despite the opposition of the DUP.

Ultimately, what this row demonstrates is that a negotiated settlement on the Protocol and the wider trade issues should be preferable for both sides compared to an acrimonious breakdown in the UK-EU relationship. Indeed, the UK legislation introduced this week would be redundant if compromises can be reached.

A Protocol that is politically sustainable is in the EU’s interests. Equally, a UK-EU trade agreement would not remove all of the irritations thrown up by the Protocol but it could certainly help to smooth over some of the important issues. If there are no tariffs between the UK and the EU, there is less risk to the EU of goods entering the Single Market at a lower tariff. If the EU and UK reach agreements on SPS, like the EU has with New Zealand, then paperwork could be simplified. Equally, establishing a UK domestic subsidy regime, recognised by the EU in a free trade agreement, would help prevent the “reach back” of the state aid provisions in the Protocol that are also of concern to the UK.

Only time will tell if this episode is the beginning of the path to a deal or the point when things turned sour.

Stephen Booth: Why the row about the Northern Ireland Protocol suggests that the EU’s position isn’t quite as strong as it likes to think

17 Sep

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

It is often said that Brexit is low on the list of the EU’s priorities. That national capitals have not been fully engaged in a process which they have delegated to Michel Barnier and the European Commission. The introduction of the Government’s Internal Market Bill has certainly got the EU’s attention.

The events of the last two weeks have upped the ante, but the two sides continue to talk and a deal between the UK and the EU is still possible, if the political appetite is there.

As I noted in my previous column, the negotiations over a new UK-EU free trade agreement have been locked in a stalemate over fishing and state aid for weeks, and a compromise can only be unlocked by high-level political intervention.

At the same time, a parallel, and up to now seemingly boring, process has been underway to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. It has long been clear that the UK and the EU have significant disagreements to resolve in the Joint Committee, the forum established under the Withdrawal Agreement empowered to iron out the practical details of the Protocol’s implementation.

In its May 2020 Command Paper on the subject, the UK identified its practical concerns. For example, under the Protocol, Northern Ireland is subject to the Union’s Customs Code, which requires exit summary declarations for goods leaving the area to which the rules apply.

However, the UK’s view is that export or exit summary declarations should not be required for NI to GB trade (since Article 6 of the Protocol states that nothing in the Protocol should prevent NI businesses from having “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK).

Removing this requirement should not be particularly controversial, since Northern Ireland will remain in the UK’s customs territory (as stipulated in Article 4 of the Protocol) and therefore any risk of complaints about the arrangements in terms of international obligations should rest with the UK, rather than the EU.

Another, more significant issue is the status of goods travelling from GB to NI deemed to be “at risk” of entering the EU (and therefore subject to EU tariffs). The Joint Committee is tasked with defining which goods are “at risk” and therefore broadening the scope of goods that would not be subject to tariffs. However, the default is that goods are “at risk”, unless the Joint Committee agrees otherwise.

The powers taken in the Internal Market Bill are advertised as an “insurance policy” to be used in the event of failure to address the UK’s concerns about the Protocol (which include the state aid provisions as well as exit summary declarations) via agreement within the Joint Committee and/or via a free trade agreement. There are reports that the Government plans to use the forthcoming Finance Bill to give itself similar powers with regard to tariffs.

Leaving aside the legalities and the domestic politics for a moment, why might the UK have decided to initiate a row with Brussels now and pre-empt the Joint Committee process? Of course, we cannot divine the precise motivation. Perhaps no deal is now seen as an inevitable, or at least probable, outcome by some in Government? But the logic of the negotiations offers another plausible rationale.

Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the wider free trade negotiations are theoretically on distinct tracks. While the Withdrawal Agreement committed both parties to seek to negotiate a free trade agreement in good faith, the Protocol comes into effect at the end of the transition period irrespective of any UK-EU trade agreement.

However, it is clear from the way the negotiations have been structured (at the strong insistence of Brussels) that the trade negotiation and the practical functioning of the Protocol are linked, and this gives the EU leverage over the trade negotiations. Since EU negotiators are not obliged to reach compromises in the Joint Committee on the issues causing the UK concern, they are able to hold the process up in order to apply pressure to the UK in the wider trade negotiation. Just because the EU is within its rights to do so, does not mean it should.

What the Government is doing, for better or worse, is to suggest to the EU that its leverage is not quite as strong as it would like to think. Ultimately, under the Protocol it is UK officials and agencies who will be tasked with enforcing EU rules. Realistically speaking, how plausible is it that the UK would do so zealously in a scenario where not only have the UK and the EU failed to reach a trade agreement, but the EU is also insisting on its maximalist interpretation of the Protocol?

The UK might have made this point more subtly if it had made clear that any measures it takes in the future would be strictly consistent with Article 16 of the Protocol, which allows either party to take unilaterally “appropriate safeguards” if the application of the Protocol leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, and its pre-existing commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.

Equally, it should also be noted that the UK is not declining to implement other important aspects of the Protocol. Indeed, as Michael Gove noted in closing Monday’s debate and Brandon Lewis repeated in committee evidence yesterday morning, the UK is erecting border-inspection posts for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, which in an ideal world it would not have to and despite the opposition of the DUP.

Ultimately, what this row demonstrates is that a negotiated settlement on the Protocol and the wider trade issues should be preferable for both sides compared to an acrimonious breakdown in the UK-EU relationship. Indeed, the UK legislation introduced this week would be redundant if compromises can be reached.

A Protocol that is politically sustainable is in the EU’s interests. Equally, a UK-EU trade agreement would not remove all of the irritations thrown up by the Protocol but it could certainly help to smooth over some of the important issues. If there are no tariffs between the UK and the EU, there is less risk to the EU of goods entering the Single Market at a lower tariff. If the EU and UK reach agreements on SPS, like the EU has with New Zealand, then paperwork could be simplified. Equally, establishing a UK domestic subsidy regime, recognised by the EU in a free trade agreement, would help prevent the “reach back” of the state aid provisions in the Protocol that are also of concern to the UK.

Only time will tell if this episode is the beginning of the path to a deal or the point when things turned sour.

Stephen Booth: Why the row about the Northern Ireland Protocol suggests that the EU’s position isn’t quite as strong as it likes to think

17 Sep

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

It is often said that Brexit is low on the list of the EU’s priorities. That national capitals have not been fully engaged in a process which they have delegated to Michel Barnier and the European Commission. The introduction of the Government’s Internal Market Bill has certainly got the EU’s attention.

The events of the last two weeks have upped the ante, but the two sides continue to talk and a deal between the UK and the EU is still possible, if the political appetite is there.

As I noted in my previous column, the negotiations over a new UK-EU free trade agreement have been locked in a stalemate over fishing and state aid for weeks, and a compromise can only be unlocked by high-level political intervention.

At the same time, a parallel, and up to now seemingly boring, process has been underway to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. It has long been clear that the UK and the EU have significant disagreements to resolve in the Joint Committee, the forum established under the Withdrawal Agreement empowered to iron out the practical details of the Protocol’s implementation.

In its May 2020 Command Paper on the subject, the UK identified its practical concerns. For example, under the Protocol, Northern Ireland is subject to the Union’s Customs Code, which requires exit summary declarations for goods leaving the area to which the rules apply.

However, the UK’s view is that export or exit summary declarations should not be required for NI to GB trade (since Article 6 of the Protocol states that nothing in the Protocol should prevent NI businesses from having “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK).

Removing this requirement should not be particularly controversial, since Northern Ireland will remain in the UK’s customs territory (as stipulated in Article 4 of the Protocol) and therefore any risk of complaints about the arrangements in terms of international obligations should rest with the UK, rather than the EU.

Another, more significant issue is the status of goods travelling from GB to NI deemed to be “at risk” of entering the EU (and therefore subject to EU tariffs). The Joint Committee is tasked with defining which goods are “at risk” and therefore broadening the scope of goods that would not be subject to tariffs. However, the default is that goods are “at risk”, unless the Joint Committee agrees otherwise.

The powers taken in the Internal Market Bill are advertised as an “insurance policy” to be used in the event of failure to address the UK’s concerns about the Protocol (which include the state aid provisions as well as exit summary declarations) via agreement within the Joint Committee and/or via a free trade agreement. There are reports that the Government plans to use the forthcoming Finance Bill to give itself similar powers with regard to tariffs.

Leaving aside the legalities and the domestic politics for a moment, why might the UK have decided to initiate a row with Brussels now and pre-empt the Joint Committee process? Of course, we cannot divine the precise motivation. Perhaps no deal is now seen as an inevitable, or at least probable, outcome by some in Government? But the logic of the negotiations offers another plausible rationale.

Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the wider free trade negotiations are theoretically on distinct tracks. While the Withdrawal Agreement committed both parties to seek to negotiate a free trade agreement in good faith, the Protocol comes into effect at the end of the transition period irrespective of any UK-EU trade agreement.

However, it is clear from the way the negotiations have been structured (at the strong insistence of Brussels) that the trade negotiation and the practical functioning of the Protocol are linked, and this gives the EU leverage over the trade negotiations. Since EU negotiators are not obliged to reach compromises in the Joint Committee on the issues causing the UK concern, they are able to hold the process up in order to apply pressure to the UK in the wider trade negotiation. Just because the EU is within its rights to do so, does not mean it should.

What the Government is doing, for better or worse, is to suggest to the EU that its leverage is not quite as strong as it would like to think. Ultimately, under the Protocol it is UK officials and agencies who will be tasked with enforcing EU rules. Realistically speaking, how plausible is it that the UK would do so zealously in a scenario where not only have the UK and the EU failed to reach a trade agreement, but the EU is also insisting on its maximalist interpretation of the Protocol?

The UK might have made this point more subtly if it had made clear that any measures it takes in the future would be strictly consistent with Article 16 of the Protocol, which allows either party to take unilaterally “appropriate safeguards” if the application of the Protocol leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, and its pre-existing commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.

Equally, it should also be noted that the UK is not declining to implement other important aspects of the Protocol. Indeed, as Michael Gove noted in closing Monday’s debate and Brandon Lewis repeated in committee evidence yesterday morning, the UK is erecting border-inspection posts for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, which in an ideal world it would not have to and despite the opposition of the DUP.

Ultimately, what this row demonstrates is that a negotiated settlement on the Protocol and the wider trade issues should be preferable for both sides compared to an acrimonious breakdown in the UK-EU relationship. Indeed, the UK legislation introduced this week would be redundant if compromises can be reached.

A Protocol that is politically sustainable is in the EU’s interests. Equally, a UK-EU trade agreement would not remove all of the irritations thrown up by the Protocol but it could certainly help to smooth over some of the important issues. If there are no tariffs between the UK and the EU, there is less risk to the EU of goods entering the Single Market at a lower tariff. If the EU and UK reach agreements on SPS, like the EU has with New Zealand, then paperwork could be simplified. Equally, establishing a UK domestic subsidy regime, recognised by the EU in a free trade agreement, would help prevent the “reach back” of the state aid provisions in the Protocol that are also of concern to the UK.

Only time will tell if this episode is the beginning of the path to a deal or the point when things turned sour.