Peaceful Commons belies turmoil over Northern Ireland protocol

Bill to replace the core of the protocol now delayed until next week as Johnson’s government finalises its strategy

Boris Johnson’s first prime minister’s questions since the drama of Monday night’s confidence vote was strangely flat, with neither he nor Keir Starmer delivering any serious blows. Starmer made only the most glancing mention of the prime minister’s internal party troubles, focusing instead on the failings of the National Health Service.

There were more gaps than usual on the green benches behind Johnson but his rebel MPs kept quiet, many with their arms folded as they watched impassively. Jeremy Hunt, who called publicly for Johnson to go and is expected to seek the leadership, appeared at the bar of the House towards the end, scanning the faces on the Conservative benches.

If the Commons was peaceful, there was turmoil within Johnson’s government over his plan to unilaterally scrap parts of the Northern Ireland protocol. Legislation which was first expected to be introduced on Wednesday and then on Thursday has now been delayed until next week.

The Bill would replace the core of the protocol, including its regime of checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea to ensure they comply with EU standards, the EU’s role in state aid and VAT rules in Northern Ireland and the role of European courts in policing the agreement. But the government has not yet decided if the legislation should itself scrap the protocol and introduce a new system to replace it or simply give ministers the power to do so if negotiations with the EU fail to make progress.

The government claims that tearing up its treaty with the EU will not be in breach of international law because they are doing it to protect the Belfast Agreement. They had hoped the publication of the Bill would persuade the DUP to take the first step towards restoring the Stormont institutions by electing a speaker for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

After serial betrayals at the hands of Johnson and the Conservative Brexiteers, the DUP are refusing to make any such commitment if the Bill leaves it up to ministers in London to decide whether or not to trigger any action on the protocol. In a clear-eyed statement to the Lords subcommittee on the protocol, Jeffrey Donaldson said Northern Ireland had been used as a pawn in an ideological battle over Brexit.

UUP leader Doug Beattie warned of the real-life consequences of making Northern Ireland’s politics a plaything at Westminster as he spoke of the risk of anti-protocol protests getting out of hand.

“It doesn’t take much to go from a brick to a stone and from a stone to a petrol bomb and to a petrol bomb to a bullet and from a bullet to a coffin,” he said.