For Boris Johnson, the political calculus has changed radically since he learned that rebels among the 148 MPs who voted to remove him are planning to exploit the Protocol tangle to mount a new challenge to his authority. Their challenge is much wider than a re-run of the old Leave- Remainer split or concern over Northern Ireland. It focuses on two factors: the doubtful legality of the UK Government’s bid to renegotiate the Protocol at a time when legal conduct generally has been a burning issue over Partygate; and the obvious unequal balance of power between the EU and the UK.
The Bill itself will hedge the government bets over going it alone or making a new deal. During its likely tortuous passage through Parliament, one of them can be dropped or emasculated by amendment.
That at any rate was the earlier story.
Update. But now we know more about why publication of the Bill has been delayed. A major split has opened up between members of the cabinet opposed to breaking international law and the Brexiteer right wing European Research Group, plus Johnson himself . Ironically many Tory rebels who voted against Johnson are with the cabinet doubters. But according to the Times Johnson and Truss are with the Tory right – who include MPs who voted against Johnson.
Whitehall sources told The Times that the legislation had undergone “substantial redrafting” after Monday’s confidence vote in an attempt to allay concerns of the Tory right.
ne source said Johnson had agreed to make changes to the legislation before other senior cabinet ministers had seen details of the bill or been consulted on the changes.
They added that the latest draft of the bill had “lost any pretence that it was in accordance with international law”.
Simon Case [the Cabinet Secretary] has very serious questions to answer about how this was allowed to happen,” they said…
.Senior ministers objected to changes to the legislation demanded by the ERG and the bill has been sent back again to the foreign office for further redrafting.
Among the changes demanded by the ERG was a new clause that would make clear that the legislation has primacy in UK law over the Brexit withdrawal agreement that includes the Northern Ireland protocol...
But after the cabinet meeting these demands have been watered down with one source saying the final legislation would look “much like” previous government plans.
The Times understands that as well as Tory Brexiteers, senior government figures have extensively consulted the DUP on the substance of the new law.
Downing Street had hoped that by strengthening the provisions in the bill the DUP would agree to nominate a speaker to the Stormont Assembly and allow ministers to return to their departments even if full power-sharing is not restored.
“The DUP is critical. We need them to take steps to go back into government as it supports the case for action,...”
A number of senior Tory MPs have already expressed concerns about the legislation including the chairman of the Northern Ireland select committee Simon Hoare and Damian Green, the former de facto deputy prime minister.
One government source said the latest version of the bill would lead to “another major row over the government breaking international law again”.
They said: “The plan was to have at least some sort of legal fig leaf. But when you explicitly make it clear that you’re preparing to overrule the withdrawal agreement then that’s gone.”
It seemed at least possible that even if publication went ahead next week more or less as the present draft, Johnson’s own risk assessment would have favoured a negotiated settlement that involves a significant retreat from unilateralism.
But as things stand he seems to be going for an even harder line although the fight is far from over.
Going hard right and defying his critics seems to be his emerging survival strategy, replacing the split over his personal conduct. He must be calculating he has the numbers for digging in. Faced with a cost of living crisis, years long hospital waiting lists, the impact of war in Europe and 40% of his MPs wanting him out,
Boris Johnson may simply find it easier to rely more and more on simplistic ideology rather than engage in complex policy making. But surely even within this cabinet, there are those who believe they could do better. Johnson’s famous boosterism is being tested as never before as a political manager of his party, and increasingly, his cabinet who are clearly divided over the extent and timing of tax cuts.
Update 2 OK, the FT reports the cabinet meeting as Johnson the comparative moderate wanting a deal and snapping at Truss for rejecting any role for EU institutions whatever and ordering a redraft. The FT has sources opining that Truss may be limbering up for a leadership bid . What was billed as a resumption of business as usual cabinet ended up in some degree of confusion and acrimony – hardly a good sign for Johnson’s ability to hold on to his leadership.
Tony Blair has offered Johnson a device for backing down from Protocol unilateralism more or less gracefully. In his foreword to a paper released recently by his institute, Blair declares that with his long experience of EU negotiations – “things have reached such a state of distrust that the two bureaucratic systems will not settle this; it has to be done at the highest political level because, ultimately, it is not a matter of technical work but political will and leadership”.
Blair like many others insists a landing zone can be found to break an otherwise ever tightening deadlock.
The first task must start with the UK accepting responsibility for the agreement that it negotiated and signed while seeking changes to the protocol – not by giving ultimatums and acting unilaterally to override its obligations, but by seeking to find constructive outcomes within the framework of the current treaty. The EU, for its part, should accept the principle that the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland require flexibility in the application of EU rules and it should be ready to discuss proposals that go further than its current ones.
Blair’s Governance proposals would give a role to the Assembly that any seriously self interested party should prefer over abstention and create pressure for cross party agreement without prejudice to any constitutional principle.
These still might appeal to Johnson. But they will be stymied by the EU who will respond to a new harder line form Johnson with an even harder one in reply.
What a mess!
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London