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There is a growing push at the top of government for the UK to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol soon after the 5th May elections, PoliticsHome understands.
Within Cabinet there is now a feeling that the government should have suspended some parts of the post-Brexit treaty last autumn, when negotiations with the European Union were leading to little progress, and the UK team, then led by Sir David Frost, repeatedly threatened to do so.
A senior Whitehall source said the UK’s failure to fulfil its threat to trigger Article 16 had led to a “boy who cried wolf” situation in which the government’s warnings had lost credibility.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has argued for some time that the UK should trigger Article 16. Attorney General Suella Braverman and Jacob Rees Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister, have also recently urged the Prime Minister to do so, The Telegraph reported.
A senior Conservative MP who attended the Tory party’s Westminster dinner last week told PoliticsHome they were left “marginally shocked” that during conversations that night, a Cabinet minister who is not known for hardline views on Brexit, was adamant that the government had to trigger Article 16.
Ministers accept that even if they wanted to trigger Article 16 of the protocol before next month’s elections in Northern Ireland, purdah rules mean they are unable to do so because it would be seen as unduly influencing the outcome of that vote.
As things stand, Sinn Democratic Fein are projected to be the largest party in Stormont, with polls putting the Unionist Party (DUP) in second place. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has warned he will refuse to take his party into the Northern Irish executive unless the protocol is dealt with by the UK and EU, meaning the province could be without a functioning government yet again.
The same Whitehall source said that in this scenario, which the government is braced for, the UK would be forced to trigger Article 16 if there were no signs of a major breakthrough in the talks.
There are even suggestions that the government is working on legislation designed to pave the way for the triggering of Article 16 that it will include in its Queen’s Speech next month. A Downing Street source has dismissed the suggestion that plans for this are underway.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and European Commission Vice-president Maros Sefcovic have put their negotiations on hold as the 5th May election approaches. Last month, The Times reported that Truss had “lost faith” in the negotiations and had told officials to prepare to trigger Article 16.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is expected to raise the Northern Ireland Protocol when he meets Johnson on Friday.
The EU side is warning the UK that triggering Article 16 would be a hostile act a time when there must be western solidarity in the face of Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine.
The government came close to triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol last year, prior to Frost resigning as Johnson’s chief negotiator.
However, the EU’s warnings that doing so would force them to retaliate by imposing new trade barriers on UK businesses led the government to step back from the brink.
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, led calls around the Cabinet table for Boris Johnson to stick with the negotiating process, warning that a trade war with Brussels would exacerbate the severe supply chain disruption facing the country at the time.
Government insiders who are frustrated with the failure to trigger Article 16 before last Christmas say Sunak was a big reason why, in the latest rift between the under-fire chancellor and other parts of the Johnson regime.
In his spring statement last month, Sunak pointed to the Northern Ireland Protocol’s obstructive effect on his plans to slash VAT for green home improvements in the province as evidence that the arrangements agreed as part of the Brexit negotiations were not sustainable.
The UK and EU agree in principle that the Northern Ireland Protocol has led to much disruption to trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and have spent many months negotiating changes to the treaty. The protocol was designed to avoid a contentious hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and did so by keeping the former wedded to EU trading rules.
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