Has the Government sold out to Brussels? That’s certainly been the tone of some of the coverage yesterday when it emerged that the UK has decided to “change tack” in the ongoing negotiations over the Northern Irish Protocol.
According to the Guardian, David Frost is now seeking an ‘interim’ deal built on a “staged solution”. This means sorting out checks and other issues with an obvious on-the-ground impact, whilst leaving thorny issues such as the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice to resolve at a later date – and less thoroughly than previously demanded.
Instead of removing its authority altogether, the Government apparently wants to use an arbitration proposals as first resort, with the ECJ only giving its opinion if the dispute were not resolved politically.
Perhaps there is some nuance to this proposal that isn’t obvious from the initial reports. But from here, it looks like quite the retreat. European judges would still have final say, and nationalist politicians keen on increasing the EU’s role in the Province need only refuse to deliver solutions in the “political arena”.And give n the way politics in Northern Ireland tends to work, who’d bet on finding much compromise in that arena anyway?
Apparently this move is to create space to find solutions on the things causing the day-to-day problems which are driving loyalist anger and pushing all the Unionist parties towards a hard-line position. Perhaps that will work, perhaps it won’t. But ministers must be aware that if it did work, it might end up diminishing what leverage they have to push for changes on the more abstract, but still extremely important, constitutional questions.
It’s certainly a long way from the position of a few months ago, when London was talking up the odds of triggering Article 16 and senior sources in Whitehall were suggesting they would have to do it if a major breakthrough hadn’t been made by the end of November. So what happened?
We can’t know for sure, yet. But the answer proffered by Dominic Cummings seems plausible: that Frost and his team do have an aggressive strategy that involves using Article 16, but it wouldn’t work without the Prime Minister’s complete commitment, and they don’t have it.
It is also the case that the fracturing of Boris Johnson’s original Vote Leave-based team, including the end of Oliver Lewis’s abortive stint at the Union Unit, leaves them rather out on a limb. It probably doesn’t help that Michael Gove, the man who negotiated some of the things Frost has been trying to change, is formally in charge of overall Union policy.
Also interesting is the timing. One can easily imagine that an aggressive push on the Protocol might have provided a means for the Prime Minister to cut across the press coverage of the abysmal result in North Shropshire. Instead, we see the opposite. Johnson’s ‘fight or flight’ response seems keyed very heavily towards ‘flight’.
This bodes very badly for the Government’s prospects of getting other important-but-difficult reform projects through in the remainder of this Parliament. As I noted previously, Johnson seems inclined to stick such missions out only where it serves a personal interest. The odds of major overhauls to the Civil Service, the planning system, or the constitution seem more remote than ever.