oris Johnson was warned on Monday not to risk a Brexit trade war with the European Union when millions of households are facing a growing cost of living crisis.
Three senior Tory MPs lined up to deliver the stark message to the Prime Minister as he headed to Belfast for crunch talks on resolving the stalemate at the Stormont Assembly, caused by Unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
One of them — Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland committee, also unleashed a stinging attack on Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, accusing her of trying to mimic Margaret Thatcher and playing tough with the EU to bolster her support with Conservative Brexiteers.
The Government is expected to announce plans on Tuesday to introduce draft legislation which could override parts of the controversial Protocol, a key element of the 2019 Brexit Treaty — signed by the UK — which established checks on some goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Brussels has made clear that any unilateral move by Britain to override the Protocol risks retaliatory action including the possible suspension of the UK-EU trade deal and imposition of costly tariffs which could lead to further price rises and damage an already fragile UK economy.
Mr Hoare told the Standard: “The risk to the economy is very strong. If we act in bad faith and breach an agreed Treaty… If we tear it up and rewrite it…what do we think will happen? What would we expect if the boot was on the other foot? Action will generate a response as it would vice versa. No time is a good time to be breaching an international treaty. But doing it during a cost of living crisis is the worst of times.”
On Ms Truss’s hard-line stance on the Protocol, he added: “This silly sabre rattling and reputation fluffing by the Foreign Secretary, who is trying to be the new Iron Lady, has got to stop.”
But a senior No 10 source stressed the Government was “not looking to start a trade war” with Brussels. The source added: “It’s really not the plan. This is about the restoration of democracy and the safeguarding of peace.
“Plans to allow us to override the Protocol down the line is very much a last resort if we can’t sort this calmly and rationally without drama.”
The source also called for the EU to show the same flexibility and goodwill it has displayed in dealing with the crisis in Ukraine. “Just a tiny bit of that goodwill in Northern Ireland would solve this in no time,” they added. “The threat to the integrity of the EU single market is minuscule.” However, with inflation and energy bills soaring, some Conservative MPs remain concerned.
Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Commons Justice Committee, urged Mr Johnson to avoid “needless confrontation”.
He said: “At the moment it would not be a good time to be risking any type of trade war or anything which makes doing business between ourselves and our biggest trading partner harder.
“At a time when there are a lot of pressures on the economy and a lot of pressures on international trade because of Ukraine, that doesn’t seem to me to be something we should be doing.”
Mel Stride, chair of the Commons Treasury Committee, said any kind of trade war with the EU would be “very unsatisfactory”. He added: “It’s important that we try and resolve this without some form of trade war… our economy would not be well served by this.”
Ahead of his trip to Northern Ireland, Mr Johnson used an article in the Belfast Telegraph to warn that if the EU’s position on the Protocol does not change “there will be a necessity to act”.
Mr Johnson, who was greeted by protesters as he arrived at arrived at Hillsborough castle on Monday for talks, went on: “The Government has a responsibility to provide assurance that the consumers, citizens and businesses of Northern Ireland are protected in the long-term.
“We will set out a more detailed assessment and next steps to Parliament in the coming days, once I return from discussions with the local parties.”
He told broadcasters on Monday the UK does not want to “scrap” the Northern Ireland Protocol, but believes it can be “fixed”.
He told broadcasters during his trip to Belfast: “We don’t want to scrap it. But we think it can be fixed.
“And actually five of the five parties I talked to today also think it needs reform.”
Put to him that it might not be the wisest move to threaten to tear up the agreement during a cost-of-living crisis, given the potential implications for trade, he said: “What we’re doing is sticking up for the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and what we’re doing is trying to protect and preserve the government of Northern Ireland.
“And yes, you’re right, there’s a cost-of-living issue, but that’s certainly not being helped by extra barriers to trade, extra burdens on business that are being caused by the protocol.
“And it certainly won’t be helped if we have a situation where the Executive isn’t up and running in Northern Ireland. You need the Executive, you need the Assembly, and that is what the people of Northern Ireland want us as politicians to focus on.”
Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said any unilateral steps by the UK to override the Protocol would be a “huge problem”.
He told Politico: “My message to the British Government is crystal clear — to act unilaterally to break international law, to not respect the democratic decisions in Northern Ireland would make matters significantly worse.”
The crisis over the Protocol has taken on greater urgency since elections earlier this month, which confirmed nationalist party Sinn Fein as the biggest at Stormont for the first time since the region was created in 1921. On Friday the Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the Protocol because it believes it drives a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, blocked the appointment of a speaker to the Assembly, meaning Stormont is unable to function. While the majority of members of the newly-elected Stormont Assembly support the trading arrangements, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said last week that “we cannot nominate to an executive until decisive action is taken on the Protocol”.
Ms Truss tweeted this morning: “The UK’s overriding priority is to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland. Stormont must be restored with the power-sharing executive up and running so elected politicians can get on with delivering for the people of NI.”
Stormont parties on Monday described “robust” meetings with Mr Johnson as he sought to break the deadlock and restore the powersharing government.
Sinn Féin President Mary-Lou McDonald, whose party delegation was the first to meet the prime minister on Monday, accused Mr Johnson of unacceptable and obstructionist tactics in relation to the protocol.
She said the government was placating the DUP and that Mr Johnson gave “no straight answers” during a “very tough meeting” at Hillsborough Castle.
“The British government is in a game of brinkmanship with the European institutions, indulging a section of political unionism which believes it can frustrate and hold society to ransom,” said said.
The leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party rubbished the idea Mr Johnson was taking sides between the unionist and nationalist parties.
“The idea that the Prime Minister is taking sides is for the fairies,” Democratic Unionist Party’s Jeffrey Donaldson told reporters. “The Prime Minister is here because it’s his job to protect Northern Ireland, it is his job to ensure that we have the right to trade freely within our own country.”
The Alliance Party described the meeting with Mr Johnson as “robust and very frustrating”.
Deputy leader Stephen Farry said: “We were giving him a very clear warning that if he plays fast and loose with the protocol and indeed the Good Friday Agreement, then he is going to be adding more and more instability to Northern Ireland.
“On the one hand, he is coming here with a certain set of stated outcomes, but all his actions belie what he is notionally trying to achieve.”
Speaking after his party’s meeting, Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said: “If the UK Government takes steps tomorrow or this week to fix some of the issues that we see with the protocol, it is important that we then nominate a speaker and we get back to government and start doing the work.
“And if we do not get back into government, then we need to identify who is blocking it and we need to bypass them.”
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood had a similarly strong warning.
“If the British Government tomorrow signal their intent to break international law by legislating to rip up the protocol at Westminster, he (Mr Johnson) will not have the support of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland,” he said.