The Union is one of, if not the, most important policy challenges facing the Government. If Boris Johnson gets it wrong, he will go down in history as a byword for the disintegration of the United Kingdom.
A man as historically-aware as the Prime Minister must be acutely aware of this. But it hasn’t spurred him to take the sort of grip on the subject that one might expect.
In particular, there seems to be a gap opening up between the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland, which is still under the control of the Vote Leave tendency in the form of Lord Frost, and the mainland, following the departure of Oliver Lewis and the dissolution of the Union Unit.
Frost, as I noted back in March, has been installed with clear orders to deliver meaningful change to the Northern Ireland Protocol. He has an ally in Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State, who has robustly defended the Government’s decision to unilaterally extend grace periods to east-to-west protect food supply lines. This morning, both men penned an article for the Belfast Telegraph reiterating the mission:
“In contrast, at Larne, every supermarket lorry from Great Britain carries up to hundreds of different product lines, each with their own documents, which the EU would want to see subject to checks, even when all the products are clearly destined for consumers in Northern Ireland. We have both heard about the delays and complexity this introduces, and the concerns that issues such as this have produced for unionism more broadly.”
They then point out that if a solution isn’t found, broader unionist and loyalist support for the current settlement could be undermined. The failure of Theresa May and her ministers to prevent the Belfast Agreement being used to merely sacralise Dublin’s demands – a truly abject episode of British diplomacy – could have dire consequences.
But the question is whether or not Lewis and Frost will have the necessary support from the centre to see the current strategy through. There is now nobody directing the Government’s strategy on the Union full-time, and the architects of the muscular ‘Ukima Unionism’ approach – named for the UK Internal Market Act – are increasingly sidelined or departed. Some are concerned that in the event of a showdown with the EU, Downing St will balk and Frost may get thrown under the bus.
That may explain why he has adopted such a conspicuously reasonable approach, eschewing the nuclear option of Article 16 whilst covering tough moves on grace periods – “action to avoid immediate disruption to lives and livelihoods” – in the language of finding “long-term solutions”.
(Amusingly, some Idefenders of the Protocol have developed the habit of simultaneously decrying London’s ‘bad faith’ failure to enforce the Protocol whilst citing the relative lack of disruption secured by extending grace periods as evidence that the Sea Border works!)
Delivering change now, before the Protocol has been bedded in and normalised, is the best chance by far to avoid the long-tern economic and regulatory de-alignment of the Province from the mainland. The Prime Minister owes those tasked with this mission his full support.