Boris Johnson is this week expected to sign off plans for a law to unilaterally scrap parts of the UK’s Brexit deal, in spite of warnings it could collapse talks with Brussels and spark a trade war with the EU.
The prime minister’s allies tried on Sunday to calm tensions, insisting the plan to rewrite parts of the Northern Ireland protocol was only “an insurance policy” in case talks with the EU on improving its operation failed.
But Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, told Sky News: “There’s no way the EU can compromise if the UK is threatening unilateral action to pass domestic legislation to set aside international obligations.”
Ministers are expected to meet as early as Tuesday to agree the plan, in spite of fears in the Treasury that it could ultimately lead to EU trade retaliation and worsen the cost of living crisis.
Government officials said Steve Barclay, cabinet office minister and an ally of chancellor Rishi Sunak, had asked the Treasury to produce work on the likely economic impact of a trade war with the EU.
Johnson, writing in the Belfast Telegraph, said if the EU did not soften its stance on the protocol there would be “a necessity to act” and that he would set out “next steps to parliament in the coming days”.
Under the Brexit deal, Northern Ireland institutions have to approve the continuation of the trading arrangements in the protocol in a “consent vote” in 2024.
He added: “There is without question a sensible landing spot in which everyone’s interests are protected. Our shared objective must be to the create the broadest possible cross-community support for a reformed protocol in 2024.”
Johnson on Monday kicks off a week of intense political activity when he travels to Belfast to deliver a “get back to work” message to the leaders of the five biggest political parties in Northern Ireland.
Downing Street said the prime minister would urge leaders quickly to form a power sharing executive at Stormont, following this month’s elections, so they could get on with dealing with “bread and butter” issues in the region.
Johnson hopes his promise to fix the disruption caused by the NI protocol to trade from Great Britain to the region — by passing a domestic law if necessary — will persuade pro-UK unionist politicians to join the executive.
But Michelle O’Neill, vice-president of the nationalist Sinn Féin, which won the elections, said she would make her opposition to UK move over the protocol clear when she meets the prime minister. “I will be telling Boris Johnson that unilateral action deepens political instability and economic uncertainty and must not happen.”
Johnson’s visit to Belfast comes after the Democratic Unionist party, which finished second in the elections, blocked the election of a speaker at Stormont as part of its boycott of the executive until the protocol is reformed.
The DUP’s caretaker economy minister, Gordon Lyons, demanded “action not words” to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. “We have set seven tests and we will judge the government’s actions against those tests,” he said.
Downing Street tried to reduce tensions with Dublin and the rest of the EU over the weekend, with some government insiders blaming foreign secretary Liz Truss for raising the stakes with aggressive briefings, which her team has denied.
Johnson’s aides on Sunday insisted that while legislation to rewrite part of the protocol was “still the most likely option”, it was an “insurance policy” in the event that talks with the EU to cut trade disruption failed.
Government officials admit it could take a year to pass any legislation and expect fierce resistance by some Tory MPs and in the House of Lords.
The DUP’s boycott freezes not only the power-sharing executive but also the entire assembly and starts the clock ticking on a six month negotiating process that could lead to new elections this winter.
Coveney warned that any move by London to walk away from the arrangements would “send headlines around the world that Britain is prepared to break international law”.
But Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC that he did not believe the EU would respond with the trade war. “I think it would be completely self-defeating if they went into a trade war. But that’s up to them,” he said.