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EU Is Letting Tory Brexit Row Play Out In Westminster Before Deciding Next Moves

5 min read

The European Union plans to leave MPs in Westminster to play out "party politics" amongst themselves this summer before deciding next steps in its approach to the intractable Northern Ireland Protocol saga.

An EU source has suggested there is a sense within the bloc that they could even be dealing with a new Prime Minister later in the year depending on how the latest power struggle between the Downing Street, Brexit-backing Conservative MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) turns out.

Relations between London and Brussels hit a new low this week after Foreign Secretary Liz Truss set out the government's plan to unilaterally scrap large parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The government says the legislation is necessary because 18 months of negotiations with the EU have failed to address unacceptable barriers facing trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. 

Ministers also argue that the action is urgently needed to protect the Good Friday peace agreement and stability in the region. The DUP is currently committed to blocking the formation of the Executive in Stormont until its issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol have been resolved.

The move was initially met with outrage in the EU, prompting two new legal proceedings against the UK, and resuming an infringement dating back to early last year. Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission Vice President, reiterated that the bloc would not renegotiate the protocol.

But the belief in Brussels is that the wisest course of action may be to let party politics in Westminster play out this summer, and then take stock of the situation in early autumn.

Sefcovic told Sky News on Thursday evening that he could not "resist the temptation [to think] that the tabling of the bill is politically driven" but did not expand on what exactly he meant by that.

A 12-minute phone call between Truss and her Irish counterpart, Simon Coveney, on Monday morning was described as being particularly frosty. Coveney said the legislation represented a "particular low point" in the UK's approach to Brexit. One source familiar with the call said "things are terrible" between London and Dublin.

Boris Johnson has been accused by some in Brussels of using the highly contentious legislation as a means of distracting from his under-pressure leadership, with his authority over the Conservative party weakened after 41 per cent of Tory MPs voted to get rid of him this month.

Behind the scenes in Westminster, the government is now applying pressure to the DUP to take the first steps towards entering government with Sinn Fein. While Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party following May’s elections in Northern Ireland, power-sharing has remained in a state of deadlock over the DUP’s opposition to the protocol.  

PoliticsHome understands that government whips have warned the DUP that the bill will not be given a second reading until it nominates a speaker to Stormont, and that the European Research Group of staunchly pro-Bexit Tory MPs (ERG) is also trying to convince the DUP to move.

One possible compromise being discussed is DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson agreeing to nominate a Stormont speaker once the bill clears second reading, assuming it is voted through to committee stage by a majority of MPs. 

The DUP is reluctant to take the government at its word, however, complaining that it has already placed its trust in Johnson over the Northern Ireland Protocol only to later be betrayed.

Sammy Wilson, the DUP MP for East Antrim, confirmed that "attempts have been made" to persuade his party to soften its approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol and power sharing.

"We have been adamant that we will not be entering an administration in Northern Ireland until Unionist concerns relating to the Protocol are adequately addressed," he told PoliticsHome.

"Attempts have been made to persuade us to alter that position as a price for the bill progressing to second reading. Our position has not changed. Until we have assurances that what is contained in the bill at present will actually be delivered in agreed legislation, we will not be co-operating in the formation of an Executive."

One former cabinet minister predicted that the government's plan to convince the DUP to form an Executive before the legislation becomes law would backfire due to the latter's strength of feeling.

The DUP also believes that the ERG is willing to topple the Prime Minister if he does not deliver the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, meaning there is little strategic sense in making the first move.

A Tory who plans to vote against the bill accused Truss of having "stitched up the ERG for her leadership push" and said "she should be focused on the Good Friday Agreement, not trying to measure the curtains for 10 Downing Street". The Foreign Secretary, who spoke to ERG members while the bill was being put together, has been pushing the government to take a hard line with the EU and at one point was asked by Johnson to tone down her proposals.

It is not yet clear, though, that a Conservative backbench rebellion could be large enough to threaten the government with a defeat, despite reputable legal figures like Jonathan Jones QC, the former head of the government's legal department, describing it as the most "extraordinary" legislation he has ever seen and the government's legal position "hopeless".

A senior Tory moderate and former justice secretary, Robert Buckland, this week gave Downing Street a boost, writing for ConservativeHome that the bill was both correct and legally sound.

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