The extraordinary toppling of Boris Johnson and the replacement of Brandon Lewis as northern secretary adds a layer of extra instability onto Stormont, which was already paralysed by the Democratic Unionist Party’s boycott of the power-sharing executive.
The assumption had been that Johnson, Lewis and foreign secretary Liz Truss would push ahead with their controversial Northern Ireland protocol Bill – which effectively overrides Johnson’s own trade deal with the European Union.
Their hope was that this would encourage the DUP to drop their boycott and nominate a deputy first minister before the autumn, when the British government must consider calling a fresh Assembly election.
The special “safety net” legislation brought in as part of the Fresh Start agreement currently enables Stormont departmental ministers to stay in place as caretakers. But those temporary rules last for just four more months.
With the clock ticking, that time is now going to be dominated by the Conservatives deciding among themselves who Johnson’s successor should be. So, an extension to the duration of the “safety net” cannot be ruled out.
Now a “caretaker” himself, unless he is removed more quickly, Johnson will probably push ahead with a strategy that has been previously regarded as high stakes by many of those he has so far not heeded in Northern Ireland.
Speaking on Thursday, former Northern Ireland secretary and Brexiteer Theresa Villiers told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show she expected all the leadership candidates to back the protocol Bill. It would, she said, be “pretty much the first question” she would ask leadership contenders.
Emphasising that the leadership of the Conservatives is a matter for its members and MPs, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson made it clear that the DUP’s view remains the same – the protocol must be removed.
Blaming Johnson for “having disastrously gone against our advice” by signing the withdrawal agreement, Donaldson said he recognised his later efforts to replace it with “arrangements which can command the support of unionists, as well as nationalists”.
However, if Johnson and Truss, who wants to replace him in No 10, do press ahead with the protocol Bill, it is expected to face vociferous opposition in the House of Lords, which should significantly delay the legislation’s passage.
Moreover, any notion that the EU might be more flexible regarding the Irish Sea trade border will recede even further as Brussels waits to see who the Conservatives choose.
The EU’s former Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, tweeted optimistically that Johnson’s exit “opens a new page” in relations, which might prove “more constructive, more respectful of commitments made, in particular regarding peace & stability in NI”.
But the EU will surely be cautious. Set against that, the DUP is unlikely to drop its boycott until the protocol Bill becomes law. Or even longer, since the legislation gives UK ministers enormous leeway to decide GB-NI trade.
While the DUP may fear any softening in the Conservative line on the protocol, other Northern Ireland politicians are worried about how Johnson might behave in the next few months, if he stays on as caretaker.
Johnson’s Downing Street words, complained Alliance Party North Down MP Stephen Farry, had included “not a word of acknowledgment or reflection on the circumstances of his downfall, the corruption, the lying, the poor judgment and the collapse of his government”.
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill was equally scathing, tweeting: “It has been an utter absurdity that the people here have been subjected to Boris Johnson for any length of time. He is a figure of absolute disrepute.”
If Johnson has few political friends in Northern Ireland, then the same seems to be true of his erstwhile secretary of state Brandon Lewis, who finished his 2½ years in office with few plaudits – especially compared to his much-praised predecessor, Julian Smith.
Although Lewis ultimately parted ways with Johnson, he will mostly be remembered for defending the latter’s approach through thick and thin, famously saying that the UK Internal Market Bill broke international law “in a very specific and limited way”.
Lewis also initially denied there was any Irish Sea trade border, even as reporters watched officials stopping lorries at ports and subjecting them to new checks – chiming with his superior’s assurances to NI businesses that they could tear up any such paperwork.
Such assurances wore increasingly thin, however, as unionists concluded Northern Ireland was being treated differently for economic purposes from the rest of the UK, contrary to previous Johnsonian pledges.
The scandals that brought Johnson down, such as “Partygate” and the Chris Pincher affair, were distinct from the Northern Ireland protocol controversy, but they are united by the willingness of the PM and his ministers to be “economical with the truth”.
Like Lewis, the new Northern Ireland secretary, Shailesh Vara, was once a Remainer, but one who after the 2016 referendum decided that Brexit must be delivered, though he is best remembered for resigning as an NI minister under Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, in November 2018.
Foreshadowing the controversies then yet to be played out, Vara expressed his concern that May’s draft Brexit deal meant Northern Ireland would “be subject to a different relationship with the EU from the rest of the UK”.
“Whilst I agree there should be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom must be respected,” Vara declared, as he left the junior Stormont ministerial job.
Despite his 11 months in office in 2018, Vara is a little-known quantity: “It is a huge privilege to return to the Northern Ireland Office as secretary of state. Having served previously, I recognise the immense contribution of NI, and its people, to the UK and I look forward to representing those interests at the cabinet table,” he said.
The expectation now is that the Northern Ireland Office under Vara and a caretaker Johnson premiership will press ahead with its controversial legacy Bill, which is opposed by every NI party but liked by British military veterans and some Tory backbenchers.
The foreign office, meanwhile, will seek to advance Truss’s protocol Bill. But whether this caretaker administration has the authority or lifespan to make any tangible progress either on replacing the Irish Sea border or reviving Stormont is open to considerable doubt.