Boris Johnson has been warned by Eurosceptic Tories they will vote against his controversial bill to overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol if it is watered down and does not ‘fully neutralize’ the Brexit text.
Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, agreed to toughen the bill after last-minute representations from the pro-Brexit European research group, leading to a bitter cabinet row on Wednesday. The legislation will be released next week.
Johnson, backed by senior cabinet minister Michael Gove, criticized Truss for making the changes, arguing it would increase tensions with Brussels and make a negotiated settlement with the EU impossible.
The bill giving ministers the power to override the protocol is being drafted again, but Eurosceptic Tories have fired a warning shot at Johnson, telling him they could reject it unless he responds to their requests.
‘We want to neutralize the protocol,’ a senior ERG official said, saying the text – part of the PM’s 2020 Brexit deal with the EU – was causing political instability in the region .
The protocol provides for post-Brexit trade deals for Northern Ireland, which remains in the EU’s single goods market to allow free trade to continue across an open border with the Republic of Ireland.
But pro-British trade unionists in Northern Ireland oppose the protocol because it creates a trade border on the Irish Sea for goods traveling east to west from Britain.
The Democratic Unionist Party refuses to join the Northern Irish executive, along with Sinn Féin, the nationalist party, in protest against the protocol.
Bernard Jenkin, a member of the ERG, told the Commons: ‘If the government brings forward a bill which does not offer the serious prospect of restoring power-sharing in Northern Ireland and restoring the Good Friday, I will vote against.”
Truss agreed to amend the bill to accommodate ERG demands that the European Court of Justice should be stripped of any role in Northern Ireland and for ‘sunset clauses’ to remove key elements of the protocol within four years.
Johnson has ordered Truss to water down the bill, but it raises the nightmare scenario of the legislation stalling, just a week after 41% of his party’s MPs voted to oust him.
Pro-EU Tories, including former Prime Minister Theresa May, oppose the bill because they believe it could be illegal under international law and will damage Britain’s standing in the world , deepening the rift with the EU.
The idea that they are teaming up with Eurosceptic Tory MPs, who may conclude the measure is too weak, is bolstering fears among some cabinet members of a political disaster in the making.
On Wednesday, ministers questioned whether legislation to tear up Johnson’s own international treaty was legal; others worried that the DUP had not guaranteed he would join the Stormont executive, even if the bill passed.
Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said that with “good faith, good governance and trust around the negotiating table”, the UK and EU should be able to make technical changes to eliminate the commercial frictions caused by the protocol.
But he said Johnson lacked the skills to broker a deal and accused him of taking “a wrecking ball” in rock-bottom UK-Ireland relations.
Simon Coveney, Irish Foreign Minister, warned that “the EU’s position has hardened” on the protocol.
“I don’t think there is a single capital in the EU, or anyone in the European Commission, who believes, at the moment anyway, that the UK government is serious about a solution. negotiated,” he said.