The Perfect Enemy | Boris Johnson says NI protocol bill a ‘trivial set of adjustments’ as over half of assembly members reject it in ‘strongest terms’– live
July 5, 2022

Boris Johnson says NI protocol bill a ‘trivial set of adjustments’ as over half of assembly members reject it in ‘strongest terms’– live

Boris Johnson says NI protocol bill a ‘trivial set of adjustments’ as over half of assembly members reject it in ‘strongest terms’– live  The Guardian

Read Time:22 Minute

Here is a summary and analysis of the main points from Boris Johnson’s LBC interview.

  • Johnson claimed that the Northern Ireland protocol bill being published today proposed “a relatively trivial set of adjustments in the grand scheme of things”. Opposition parties, and some Tories, argue that the plan to allow the UK to unilaterally ignore most of the protocol – an agreement with the EU – would be in breach of international law. Johnson was asked about a note circulating among Tory MPs saying the bill breaks international law.
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.@politicshome exclusively reveals:

• The briefing note being shared by Tory MPs opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol bill

• Alliance’s row w/ government over the involvement of the DUP

Fireworks await tomorrow when Truss unveils the legislation https://t.co/p9Qz4vElqO pic.twitter.com/KQdj029eIS

&mdash; Adam Payne (@adampayne26) June 12, 2022

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.@politicshome exclusively reveals:

• The briefing note being shared by Tory MPs opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol bill

• Alliance’s row w/ government over the involvement of the DUP

Fireworks await tomorrow when Truss unveils the legislation https://t.co/p9Qz4vElqO pic.twitter.com/KQdj029eIS

— Adam Payne (@adampayne26) June 12, 2022

Asked to accept the bill was doomed to fail because of the extent of opposition to it, Johnson refused to accept that. He went on:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}What we have to respect, and this is the crucial thing, is the balance and the symmetry of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We have to understand there are two traditions in Northern Ireland, broadly two ways of looking at the border issues, and one community at the moment feels very, very estranged from the way things are operating and very alienated. And we have just got to fix that.

And it is relatively simple to do it. It’s a bureaucratic change that needs to be made. Frankly, it’s a relatively trivial set of adjustments in the grand scheme of things.

  • Johnson refused to accept that the bill broke international law. Asked if he agreed that it did, he replied:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}I disagree with that, and I tell you why. I think our higher and prior legal as commitment as a country is to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, to the balance and stability of that agreement, and that means respecting [the concerns of unionists].

This is an argument that Johnson has used before. But if the Good Friday agreement takes precedence over the Northern Ireland protocol, because it came first, perhaps it should take precedence over Brexit too, which also came later and which has also been hard to square with the 1998 agreement that has formed the basis of peace in Northern Ireland?

  • Johnson said that, if the EU responded to the UK unilaterally abandoning large parts of the NI protocol by starting a trade war, that would be a “gross, gross over-reaction”. Asked about the prospect of a trade war happening, he replied:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}I think that would be a gross, gross over-reaction.

All we’re trying to do is simplify things, to actually to remove barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. How perverse, how preposterous … to be introducing further restrictions on trade when all we’re trying to do is have some bureaucratic simplifications between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

  • Johnson brushed aside claims from Prince Charles deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda is “appalling”. At the weekend it emerged that Charles has said this about the policy in private. Clarence House has not denied that this is what he thinks, but it has said that he is politically neutral, and that it won’t comment on private conversations. Asked about Charles’s views, Johnson replied:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}I think that most people can see that the criminal gangs …. they need to be stopped. That model needs to be frustrated.

Asked again if Charles was wrong, Johnson replied:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}Let me put it this way, what I don’t think we should support is continued activity by criminal gangs.

  • Johnson stressed that there were legal options for people wanting to come to the UK. Explaining the need to break the business model of the people smugglers putting migrants on small boats to cross the Channel, he said those boats were very dangerous, and the people were breaking the law. He went on:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}What it does is it undermines everybody who’s coming here legally, and it undermines people who support immigration, who want people to come here legally and to be integrated properly.

Johnson said that the workers he met on a farm in Cornwall this morning (see 8.40am) had come from all over the world. “But they come here legally,” he said. “They do it properly. They’re not they’re not controlled by criminal gangs. And that is what we want to see.”

Since Johnson was fined for breaking lockdown rules in No 10, he has not been in the best position to complain about others breaking the law. But a more substantial objection to this argument is that the seasonal agricultural workers scheme used by the farm workers Johnson met this morning would be no use to the women and children crossing the Channel because they are seeking asylum in the UK, not a summer labouring job.

  • Johnson said the government had always expected “very active lawyers” to challenge the Rwanda policy. But he also claimed he had “utmost respect for the legal profession”. This meant that, by Johnson’s standards, this was a relatively benign reference to immigration lawyers. In the past he has accused them of being politically motivated.
  • Johnson implied that he was opposed to implementing further tax cuts now. Asked about the claim by Gerard Lyons, the economist who advised Johnson when he was London mayor, that Johnson should be cutting income tax instead of listening to the Treasury (which is opposed to this now), Johnson replied:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}[Lyons] will understand that we’re bringing in tax cuts as fast as we can. But what we’ve also got to do is look after people in a tough time …

I understand that we need to bear down on taxation, and we certainly will. But we’ve got an inflationary spike that we’ve got to get through right now, looking after people as we go through that. And that is what we’re going to do.

Johnson seemed to be arguing that he could not implement further tax cuts now because the government needed to fund the measures announced to help people with the cost of living. He may also have been implying that cutting income tax now would be inflationary.

Protesters outside the high court in London where there has been a fresh legal attempt to stop asylum seekers being flown to Rwanda tomorrow under the government’s policy.

The withdrawal of the national Covid testing scheme is “dragging on UK GDP data”, Treasury minister John Glen has told MPs. Responding to a Commons urgent question on the growth figures showing the economy shrinking in April, and echoing the argument used by No 10 (see 1.56pm), Glen said:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}Like other advanced economies, the UK is affected by global economic challenges including the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As the chancellor said a few weeks ago, a perfect storm of global supply shocks is rolling through our economy simultaneously. At the same time, the impact from the wind-down of the national Covid testing scheme is dragging on UK GDP data.

Overall, the figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this morning for April show that output fell 0.3% on the month, with the services sector falling by 0.2% and production and construction declining by 0.6% and 0.4% respectively.

As the ONS themselves note, the fall in GDP on the month is driven by the impact of the wind-down of the NHS Covid testing programme. Testing volumes fell 70% from March to April which, alongside the impact from vaccines, detracted 0.5 percentage points from GDP growth in April.

Pat McFadden, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, claimed Britain was “going backward” under the Conservatives. He said:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}Inflation at nine per cent, tax promises broken, trade deficit £24bn, the pound falling against the dollar, the director general of the CBI saying business leaders are in despair. The OECD forecasting that next year the UK will have the lowest growth of any G20 economy with the sole exception of Russia. This is what the government is presiding over. Britain is going backward under the Conservatives.

Micheál Martin, the taoiseach (Irish PM), has said that it is “very regrettable” that the UK is planning to renege on an international treaty. Speaking in Country Cork about the legislation being passed this afternoon allowing the UK government to ignore most of the Northern Ireland protocol, Martin said:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}It’s very regrettable for a country like the UK to renege on an international treaty.

I think it represents a new low point because the natural expectation of democratic countries like ourselves, the UK and all across Europe is that we honour international agreements that we enter into.

Martin said the only way to solve problems with the protocol was through negotiations with the EU and he said he did not accept that Brussels was being inflexible.

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}I’ve had this discussion with [Boris Johnson] and, in our view, the only way to resolve issues around the operation of the protocol is to have substantive negotiations between the UK and the EU.

We do not accept the presentation by the British government and certain ministers to the effect that the EU is inflexible. That is most definitely not the case and the EU has been very proactive in the last year in endeavouring to seek solutions to issues around the operation of the protocol.

Martin also said he was “very concerned” about the failure of the Northern Ireland assembly to reconvene. He said:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}I’m still very concerned that we are currently witnessing a denial of democracy where we have had an assembly election and yet we don’t have an assembly convened. The people’s voice needs to be reflected in the institutions being put in place, the assembly in particular, and the executive.

As the open letter released today illustrates, a majority of assembly members are opposed to the UK government’s bill. (See 3.12pm.) But the assembly has not been able to start work since the elections in May because the DUP has refused to agree to the election of a new Speaker.

The government is due to publish the bill later this afternoon – possibly not until around 6pm.

Micheál Martin

A majority of MLAs (members of the legislative assembly) in Northern Ireland have signed an open letter to Boris Johnson saying that they reject “in the strongest possible terms” his “reckless” Northern Ireland protocol bill.

Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland and first minister elect (assuming power sharing ever resumes) has the lead signature on the letter which has been signed by all 27 Sinn Féin MLAs, as well as the 17 Alliance party MLAs and eight from the SDLP. They account for 52 of the 90 members of the assembly (58%).

Here are their main arguments.

  • A majority of MLAs, and a majority of people in Northern Ireland, are opposed to the government bill, the MLAs say. They say:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}Our parties collectively represent a majority inside the Northern Ireland assembly and received a majority of votes cast in the recent assembly election. We reject in the strongest possible terms your government’s reckless new protocol legislation, which flies in the face of the expressed wishes of not just most businesses, but most people in Northern Ireland.

  • The protocol is the only option available to protect Northern Ireland from the worst aspects of Brexit, the MLAs say. They say:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}The protocol is itself a product of the hard Brexit you personally championed and a withdrawal deal you personally signed. Whilst not ideal, the protocol currently represents the only available protections for Northern Ireland from the worst impacts of that hard Brexit. The protocol also offers clear economic advantages to our region, and the opportunity for unique access to two major markets. The fact that you have removed this advantage from businesses in Great Britain, at a clear economic cost, does not justify doing the same to businesses in Northern Ireland.

  • The MLAs say it is “deeply frustrating” that their support for changes to the protocol has been presented by the government as support for its bill. It is not, they say. They say they just want “smooth implementation” of the protocol, and that the EU has shown it would agree to changes to facilitate this. (When Liz Truss announced plans for the bill last month, she claimed 78% of people in Northern Ireland wanted the protocol changed. But that figure was arguably misleading because around half of that group only want relatively minor changes, of the kind backed by the Sinn Féin/Alliance/SDLP MLAs – not the kind of change proposed by Truss.)
  • The MLAs reject Boris Johnson’s claim that he is acting to protect the Good Friday agreement. They say:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}Finally, we strongly reject your continued claim to be protecting the Good Friday agreement as your government works to destabilise our region. To complain the protocol lacks cross-community consent, while ignoring the fact that Brexit itself – let alone hard Brexit – lacks even basic majority consent here, is a grotesque act of political distortion. Your claims to be acting to protect our institutions is as much a fabrication as the Brexit campaign claims you made in 2016.

Here is the full text of the letter.

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New – A majority of MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly have signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson this afternoon outlining their opposition to the government’s proposed legislation pic.twitter.com/fdVoiTZXrn

&mdash; Jessica Elgot (@jessicaelgot) June 13, 2022

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New – A majority of MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly have signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson this afternoon outlining their opposition to the government’s proposed legislation pic.twitter.com/fdVoiTZXrn

— Jessica Elgot (@jessicaelgot) June 13, 2022

Here are the key points from the Downing Street lobby briefing.

  • No 10 says the shrinking of the economy in April was largely explained by the end of mass Covid testing. That “significantly impacted” on the GDP figures, the PM’s spokesperson said. He went on:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}When we exclude the falling numbers of Covid tests, the rest of the economy saw positive growth of 0.1% in April.

So we are focused on growing the economy to reduce the cost of living and we will continue to work to create the conditions for economic growth.

The ONS report on the growth figures backs up this claim. It says:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}Human health and social work activities fell by 5.6% in April 2022, and this was the main negative contributor to April’s fall in services (detracting 0.5 percentage points as shown in figure 3). The driver of this fall was human health activities, which fell by 7.6%. This largely reflects the significant reduction in the coronavirus (Covid-19) NHS Test and Trace activity following changes to testing policies across the UK, particularly the changes to the Covid-19 testing policy in England from April.

  • The spokesperson claimed the economy had “strong foundations”.
  • The spokesperson insisted that Brexit would be “a boon to the UK economy in the long term”. Asked about claims that Brexit has contributed to the UK’s poor growth, the spokesperson said it was “too early to pass judgment” on the impact of Brexit, particularly given the effects of the pandemic. He went on:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}We are confident that the opportunities Brexit provides will be a boon to the UK economy in the long term.

So far, most of the evidence clearly shows that Brexit has been bad for the British economy. Jonathan Portes and Mathias Wosyka, from the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank, published a very fair assessment in the Observer yesterday.

  • The spokesperson said there were “no plans” for a further cut in fuel duty.
  • The spokesperson said Boris Johnson had “nothing but respect and admiration” for Prince Charles. He said:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}The prime minister has nothing but respect and admiration for the Prince of Wales, who’s spoken out on a number of issues, not least the environment.

The spokesperson was asked about Johnson’s response to reports that the prince thinks the policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda is “appallling”. The spokesperson said Johnson dealt with this in his LBC interview this morning. (See 9.58am.)

Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president who leads for the EU in Brexit talks with the UK, posted this on Twitter this morning after speaking to Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, about the Northern Ireland protocol bill. It will be “damaging to mutual trust and a formula for uncertainty”, he says.

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Spoke to @trussliz earlier where she informed me of 🇬🇧legislation to unilaterally disapply the Protocol. The EU has always paid utmost attention to the impact Brexit has on NI, offering workable solutions. Unilateral action is damaging to mutual trust &amp; a formula for uncertainty. pic.twitter.com/CWqFSxy0GC

&mdash; Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) June 13, 2022

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Spoke to @trussliz earlier where she informed me of 🇬🇧legislation to unilaterally disapply the Protocol. The EU has always paid utmost attention to the impact Brexit has on NI, offering workable solutions. Unilateral action is damaging to mutual trust & a formula for uncertainty. pic.twitter.com/CWqFSxy0GC

— Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) June 13, 2022

There are two urgent questions in the Commons this afternoon at 3.30pm; the first, tabled by Labour, is on the growth figures; and the second, tabled by the SNP, is on the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda.

After they are over, at around 5pm, George Eustice, the environment secretary, will make a statement about the food strategy.

Speaking to the media in Wakefield, where he is campaigning ahead of next week’s byelection, Keir Starmer also said that the Northern Ireland protocol bill being published today would reduce, not increase, the chances of an agreement with the EU on changes to the protocol that might improve the way it operates. Starmer said:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}I think the answer to this is to accept there are some problems in the way the protocol works but they can be resolved around the negotiating table with statecraft, with guile, with trust.

Unfortunately, we don’t have those in the current prime minister.

They won’t be resolved with legislation that breaches international law and that, frankly, will impede the negotiations that, in the end, will be needed to settle this.

So the government is going down the wrong track here.

The UK government wants to legislate to allow it to change the operation of the protocol unilaterally, but ministers have also hinted that they think there is a chance of the threat of legislation leading to the EU taking a more flexible approach in talks, which could lead to an agreement.

Keir Starmer has said today’s growth figures, showing the economy contracting in April as well as in March, should be a “real cause for concern” for people. He explained:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;} I think these latest figures are going to be a real cause for concern for millions of people who are struggling already to pay their bills, so this is a very gloomy forecast. And it’s not new. We’ve had low growth in our economy for 12 years – the entire period of this Conservative government.

We’ve had low growth and high taxes and it’s that combination that is really punishing people across the country. What we need is a plan to get the economy going – investment in the right places, cutting those taxes, the emergency budget that we’ve been calling for.

Keir Starmer speaking to the media in Wakefield.

Micheál Martin, the taoiseach (Irish PM), has dismissed Boris Johnson’s claim that the Northern Ireland protocol amounts to a “relatively trivial set of adjustments” (see 9.58am), Gavan Reilly from Virgin Media News reports.

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NEW: “Announcing the unilateral breach of an international agreement is pretty serious stuff,” the Taoiseach dryly summarises today

&mdash; Gavan Reilly (@gavreilly) June 13, 2022

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NEW: “Announcing the unilateral breach of an international agreement is pretty serious stuff,” the Taoiseach dryly summarises today

— Gavan Reilly (@gavreilly) June 13, 2022

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This in reply to Boris Johnson telling LBC earlier that the measures were “not a big deal”.

The British government has a tendency to big up its moves in advance of doing them, and downplay them as it does so, Micheal Martin says. @virginmedianews

&mdash; Gavan Reilly (@gavreilly) June 13, 2022

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This in reply to Boris Johnson telling LBC earlier that the measures were “not a big deal”.

The British government has a tendency to big up its moves in advance of doing them, and downplay them as it does so, Micheal Martin says. @virginmedianews

— Gavan Reilly (@gavreilly) June 13, 2022

The UK government hopes that its legislation allowing large parts of the Northern Ireland protocol to be abandoned will satisfy the DUP, which is calling for the protocol to be replaced. The DUP is refusing to allow the power-sharing executive at Stormont to resume until it gets its way, and it is not even allowing the Northern Ireland assembly to elect a new Speaker. Without a Speaker, the assembly cannot function.

But the DUP MP Sammy Wilson told BBC’s Good Morning Ulster this morning that the publication of the bill by itself would not be enough to assuage its concerns about the protocol. He explained:

.css-knbk2a{height:1em;width:1.5em;margin-right:3px;vertical-align:baseline;fill:#C70000;}Firstly, we have to see the legislation in its final form.

Secondly, what we see today will not necessarily be what comes through the process in the House of Commons and House of Lords. It is always subject to amendment and that will be very important before we can give our support to it.

Thirdly, it is enabling legislation. It states that ministers will do certain things, but we don’t know what those things are because they come in subsequent legislation.

We are at the first stage; we are pleased that the government at least is recognising there is an issue, that they are bringing forward legislation in the face of the EU’s intransigence to deal with the problems.

Sammy Wilson.