NI protocol: Johnson’s shaky grip on power means EU may just sit and wait

Truss’s statement left MPs none the wiser about what her government really wants

After weeks of threats and menace from London, Liz Truss's statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday left MPs none the wiser about what her government really wants on the Northern Ireland protocol. She pledged to unilaterally scrap central parts of it but said she would abandon the plan if talks with Brussels take a turn for the better, adding that the bill would include a self-destruct clause in the event of an agreement.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson said he wanted to "fix" the agreement rather than to "nix" it, remarking that the protocol was not "the law of the Medes and the Persians". These laws, according to the Book of Daniel "altereth not" but the prime minister's political circumstances altereth all the time and right now they require tough talk on the protocol.

All the DUP's eight MPs were sitting in a row opposite Truss as she spoke, looking almost as pleased with themselves as they did when they held the balance of power at Westminster between 2017 and 2019. Jeffrey Donaldson's party have renewed their vows with the Conservative Eurosceptics in the European Research Group (ERG) with whom they pursued a joint strategy that ended with the ERG abandoning them at the last minute to vote through the protocol.

Donaldson said he would take "a graduated and cautious approach" to the government's initiative but he risks being led down a blind alley by the ERG if he is not very careful. Pressure from his Eurosceptic backbenchers may have prompted Johnson to threaten unilateral action on the protocol but countervailing pressures could make him change course.

Truss’s statement was a plea to EU leaders to change Maros Sefcovic’s negotiating mandate to allow him to renegotiate the text of the protocol. If they fail to do so, the British government will introduce a Bill “in the coming weeks” to replace the protocol’s measures with a new system that effectively cuts the EU out of the process of customs and goods regulation in Northern Ireland.

A bill could take nine months to pass through all its stages and there is a risk that the House of Lords would delay it for a year. In the meantime, the EU will slowly ratchet up trade sanctions while the DUP will face the choice of continuing to boycott the Stormont institutions or going back into the Executive while the protocol remains in place.

Labour focused their criticism on the government's recklessness in risking a trade war with Europe at a time when the British economy is plagued by soaring inflation and stagnant growth and possibly heading for recession. EU leaders, knowing that the British economy is fragile and that Johnson's grip on power remains uncertain, may calculate that their best response to the latest provocation from London is to sit and wait.