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The strange death of the government’s anti-Protocol Bill

First it was there, and then it was not.

The government confirmed last month that it would bring forward a Bill in the new session of parliament enabling it to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Financial Times broke the story two weeks ago that the Bill would give ministers ‘sweeping powers to tear up the post-Brexit deal governing trade in Northern Ireland, risking a fresh confrontation with Brussels.’

Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister in charge of the government’s legislative programme, subsequently told the House of Commons EU Scrutiny Committee that Boris Johnson only agreed to the Protocol ‘on the basis that it would be reformed.’

He added: ‘And there comes a point at which you say: “Well, you haven’t reformed it and therefore we are reforming it ourselves.”’

Lord Frost, the cabinet’s erstwhile Brexit negotiator, last week told the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank that it was ‘entirely reasonable’ for the government to act ‘unilaterally’ to override key aspects of the Protocol.

So, the story was briefed out, reported on, and widely discussed in the media.

And then last night, out of the blue, the idea was dropped.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis told ITV’s Robert Peston: ‘Our focus is on resolving the issues with the Protocol, ideally we want to do that by agreement with the European Union,’ he said – emollience personified.

While not ruling out taking ‘further steps, if necessary,’ it was still a massive U-turn and there will be no such Bill unveiled in next week’s Queen’s Speech.

What is fascinating – genuinely puzzling – is not that the government has changed tack.

It was a big intervention to make in the first place and one not unhelpful to Jeffrey Donaldson, so to drop it straight before election day was a punch in the solar plexus for the DUP.

They still like to portray themselves as having vestigial influence with the Conservatives at Westminster, but in reality, they are led up the garden path every time.

DUP. More like Dupe.

Never one to waste a good betrayal, TUV leader Jim Allister wasted no time this morning, telling the Belfast Telegraph:

‘If the government is resiling again from action, then it underscores the need for unionist voters to respond strongly at the polls on Thursday and to reject the iniquitous protocol by voting TUV — No Sea Border.’

Why did the government leave the DUP swinging – again – and what is really going on?

Over in The Spectator, their well-connected political editor, James Forsyth, reckons that ministers are still working on a strategy to take unilateral action. They will argue that the Protocol row is poisoning the political system and that they – perversely – are defending the Good Friday Agreement:

‘There is no power sharing, no north-south ministerial collaboration, and the protocol disrupts east-west relations. The government argues that the common factor in all this is the protocol, though EU officials respond that the real root of the problem is Brexit,’ he writes.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron – the most stringent European leader when it comes to enforcing the Brexit deal that Boris Johnson freely entered into – has not even bothered to phone him following his re-election as French President.

It would not surprise me if the EU, scrupulously keen to avoid saying or doing anything that would spur on anti-Protocol sentiment in the elections, has privately warned the British Government that enough now really is enough and that any pre-emptive move, outside of formal negotiations, will see with full retaliatory measures.

Indeed, the ever-impressive RTe Europe editor, has a thread along these lines:

‘It’s understood that EU member states have been informed that the European Commission will “use the remedies at its disposal in order to uphold the full implementation of the Protocol.”’

Diplomatically put, but in his Speccy piece, Forsyth spells out what that might entail:

‘The various legal cases against the UK for not enforcing the protocol, which are paused at present, would be resumed. It would also spell the end of UK attempts to join Horizon, the EU’s scientific research programme. If the bill became law, then the ‘nuclear option’ of ‘actively targeting British products’ would come into play.’

We are also heading into US mid-term election territory where the influence of the Irish American lobby will be keenly felt. Again, Boris Johnson is, in his favoured Latin, persona non grata.

The consequence of playing fast and loose are starting to catch up with our freewheeling PM, who might be realising that the cost/benefit of falling out with the EU and Americans at the same time is not worth the bother of pleasing the DUP and anti-Protocol ultras.

Despite the incessant sabre-ratting over the issue, is Boris Johnson starting to realise that he has brought a knife to a gunfight?

Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About.’