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Boris Johnson looking to dial down the rhetoric in Belfast

PM’s emollient approach contrasts with Liz Truss’s megaphone diplomacy on protocol

After a weekend of Downing Street briefings against foreign secretary Liz Truss’s megaphone diplomacy on the Northern Ireland protocol, Boris Johnson will strike a more emollient pose in Belfast on Monday.

He will guarantee the delivery of a long-delayed language and culture package; regulations to ensure that abortion services are available in Northern Ireland; and new measures to deal with the legacy of the past.

But he will also say that the protocol has upset the balance of the Belfast Agreement because the North-South strand has taken precedence over the east-west one.

This is the message that junior minister Conor Burns took to Washington last week and it is the context the British government planned to build around its plan to unilaterally scrap parts of the protocol.

Johnson hoped that countries such as Poland, Sweden and Finland, which have benefited from defence co-operation with Britain since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, would encourage the rest of the EU to compromise on the protocol and block any retaliatory trade measures.

Aggressive

Truss undermined Britain’s position by briefing out the most aggressive version of the plan for unilateral action, a move her rivals believe was designed to win the support of hardline Brexiteers in a future leadership bid.

After all, the threat of unilateral action was designed to win the attention of EU leaders and to persuade them to give Maros Sefcovic more leeway in the protocol negotiations.

“We want a weapon on the table, we don’t want to use it,” the Sunday Times quoted one senior official as saying. “It’s like the nuclear deterrent. The PM does not want to use nuclear weapons, whatever the knuckleheads tell him.”

As so often during the Brexit negotiations, attracting the EU leaders' attention has made matters worse for Britain as capitals are hardening in their determination to protect the single market. European diplomatic sources say there is as yet no sign that countries in northern and eastern Europe want to pick a fight with their EU partners over the protocol.

Scrapping parts of the protocol, which is written into British law, will require legislation that will take months to pass through parliament, if it is not blocked in the Lords and delayed for a year. Introducing a Bill in the House of Commons is likely to set off EU retaliation, but even as punitive measures ratchet upwards, the two sides will be driven back to the negotiating table.

Negotiable

Some of Britain’s demands, such as making temporary grace periods permanent or bringing state aid rules into line with what was agreed in the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA), may be within the realm of what is negotiable. Others, such as removing the requirement for goods in Northern Ireland to conform to EU standards or not applying updated EU regulations, are more of a stretch.

Johnson apparently believes that by raising the stakes and exploiting the fragility of political unionism in Northern Ireland he will improve his position at the negotiating table.

In the past, this kind of manoeuvre has usually led to a climbdown followed by a capitulation, often dressed up as a triumph for British diplomacy.