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Stephen Collins: NI protocol may be weaponised again as Boris Johnson clings to power

The prime minister’s fate now lies in the hands of senior civil servant Sue Gray

Whether or not Boris Johnson's current travails turn out to be the final act in a compelling political drama that has gripped British politics for the past six years, the outcome will have a direct impact on this country. His fate is likely to determine whether the Brexit saga and the ongoing dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol can finally be resolved.

Of course it is too early to write Johnson off. The current frenzy in the British media about the prospect of the prime minister's downfall is reminiscent of the hysteria which surrounded the three heaves against Charles Haughey 40 years ago. At the time the media consensus was that Haughey was doomed but he defied the odds and survived as party leader for another decade.

Johnson and Haughey share similar characteristics. Both had a whiff of sulphur about them but, far from repelling voters, this quality was vital to their success and made them endlessly fascinating to the media and the wider public. Johnson shares Haughey’s self-belief and his willingness to fight on regardless of the odds, and this quality should not be underestimated.

The difference between the fate of the two may lie in the nature of the parties they were elected to lead. The defining characteristic of Fianna Fáil in its heyday was loyalty to the leader. By contrast the quality that has enabled the Conservative Party to dominate British politics for almost 200 years is a ruthless willingness to dispatch leaders once they have become a liability.

Impartiality

Johnson's fate now lies in the hands of senior civil servant Sue Gray, who is investigating the various Downing Street parties which have taken place during the lockdown. Gray, who has a formidable reputation for impartiality, has a connection with Ireland. She took a career break in the 1980s to run a pub in Newry with her country singer husband from Portaferry in Co Down, Bill Conlon. More recently she headed the Northern Department of Finance.

Conservative journalist Andrew Gimson, who has written a book about Johnson, gave the following assessment of Gray. "A slash of scarlet lipstick and bouffant brown hair should not distract one from the truth that she is a steely enforcer of Whitehall authority. All power to the civil service is her modus operandi. She owes her allegiance to the permanent government and the deep state."

Johnson must be rueful about the fact that his most ardent one-time political chums have put him where he is today

On the other hand a senior British official was quoted as saying in recent days: “Sue Gray will not be a hanging judge. She will determine the facts, as bad as they may be, but she is a civil servant and she is not going to take out a prime minister.”

One way or another, Johnson’s fate is in her hands.

If the Gray report proves damning Johnson will be in real trouble and senior figures in his party know it. At this stage the succession appears to be between chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss. Sunak was notably absent from the Commons on Wednesday when Johnson made his apology, and later issued a lukewarm message of support saying: "The PM was right to apologise, and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry."

Confrontation

If Johnson falls and Sunak does become prime minister the outlook for improved Anglo-Irish relations is positive. Given his stated concerns about the problems facing the British economy, Sunak’s instinct will be to end the bitter confrontation over the protocol on the basis that the last thing his country needs is a trade war with the EU.

Truss will probably have a different take on the protocol given that she is currently involved in negotiations about it. She will begin a second day of talks today (Friday) with Maros Sercovic of the EU Commission to see if a way to solve the dispute can be agreed.

Truss does not have the abrasive style of her predecessor David Frost, but she has, like him, expressed a willingness to trigger article 16 if necessary. She clearly wants to keep the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative Party on side in case of an early leadership contest and makes any early settlement of the protocol issue unlikely because the EU has gone about as far as it can to mitigate its impact.

If Johnson does survive the outlook for an early settlement of the protocol impasse looks more problematic. He will be desperate to keep his right-wing Brexiteer MPs on board, and may well see confrontation with the EU as the best way of distracting from his domestic problems.

Something that should give him pause for thought, though, is that some of his most strident supporters from the Brexiteer faction have been the architects of his problems. A series of leaks about parties in Downing Street focused the attention of the media on his embarrassing rule-breaking activities while Frost’s resignation in protest at Covid restrictions undermined him at a critical juncture.

Their interventions came on top of Johnson's foolish decision to try to defend another ardent Brexiteer, Owen Paterson.

Johnson must be rueful about the fact that his most ardent one-time political chums have put him where he is today.