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Eating humble protocol pie

An arch-Brexiter apologises to Ireland and the EU. What is going on?

Image: The New European

Birmingham may not be known for its pies, but large helpings of humble pie were on the menu at the Tory party conference on Monday, as Liz Truss and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng were forced to scrap plans to cut the top rate of income tax. 

But they weren’t the only ones tucking in. Arch Brexiter and minister of state for Northern Ireland Steve Baker got a head-start on Sunday, when he apologised to Ireland and the European Union for the way he and some of his colleagues had behaved in recent years.

Speaking at the conference, the former chair of the ultra-Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG) spoke of needing to respect the legitimate interests of Ireland and the EU. He was sorry, he said, because relations with Ireland were not where they were supposed to be. 

“And it’s with humility that I want to accept and acknowledge that I and others did not always behave in a way which encouraged Ireland and the European Union to trust us to accept that they have legitimate interests – legitimate interests that we’re willing to respect – because they do and we are willing to respect them,” he said.

As commentators tried to decipher this somewhat garbled but dramatic transformation – akin to watching Malcolm Tucker offer to calmly listen to your side of the story – some people concluded that this new conciliatory tone was, in fact, a pragmatic response to the fallout from Kwarteng’s mini-budget. It seemed to signal, at the very least, a change in the mood music surrounding the fractious question of the Northern Ireland protocol, which has poisoned UK relations with the EU and Ireland for months. 

Other experts even suggested that it might be an early signal that an agreement on the protocol had been reached. It would certainly be in the interests of No10 for the arguments to be over. A weakened UK can’t fight on all fronts at once, and when you have knives pointing at you from all directions at home, the wise thing might be to seek friends abroad. 

“There’s (a) bit of a change in the air. Govt can only fight on so many fronts,” tweeted Mujtaba Rahman, a senior Europe analyst at the Eurasia Group. He pointed out that a hardliner like Baker might have an easier time selling a deal on the protocol to Northern Ireland’s unionists, who have paralysed politics in the region because they want the protocol scrapped. 

As Kwarteng endured a series of humiliating media interviews on Monday morning, Baker was taking to the airwaves to elucidate his position. He told RTE’s Morning Ireland that he was sure the issues could be de-escalated if all sides came together in goodwill. 

“Unionists and loyalists have not reacted well to my apology but I would just say to them, you know, if we’re going to be constructive here and get a deal that works for everyone, we’ve got to de-escalate these tensions,” he said. “If I have to eat a bit of humble pie to get that done, then I’m happy to eat it.”

Many observers reacted with caution. Monday’s Telegraph said EU sources hoped the economic crisis would make Truss more eager to get a deal, but were also aware she might toughen up again “to shore up her Brexiteer base if her leadership is weakened any further”. It is a reminder that one u-turn can easily lead to another. 

The row over the protocol hit a new high in June when Truss, then foreign secretary, introduced the bill that would allow the UK to unilaterally tear up parts of the protocol. That legislation is still working its way through parliament – it is due in the House of Lords for a second reading next week – despite the EU saying it represents a breach of an international agreement. Brussels has also started legal action against the UK over its failure to fully implement the terms of the protocol.

But as Truss grappled with the fallout from the mini-budget on Monday, the signs of movement on that other urgent issue in her inbox were mounting. The European Commission announced that technical talks, suspended since February, would resume against a backdrop of encouraging noises coming from both sides of the Irish Sea. 

Last Friday, James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, spoke to the EU’s chief negotiator Maroš Šefčovič, with the latter describing it as a good conversation. Šefčovič tweeted: “Both sides agree to look for solutions around the Protocol, to bring predictability & certainty to people in Northern Ireland.”

Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin has also said he detected a genuine wish from Truss to resolve the impasse. And at the same event with Baker, the penitent europhobe, on Sunday, the new Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, another former ERG chair, said: “I understand the complications and maybe we could have understood them a bit better, sooner. But now the mood music certainly seems to be changing and I very much hope that we get some solutions.”

Some observers expect negotiators to work towards a deadline of Oct 28, after which new elections have to be held for the paralysed Northern Ireland Assembly. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) party has refused to talk to rivals Sinn Féin over setting up a new executive until the protocol is scrapped – but if the stalemate continues, voters will have to go to the polls again. 

The Northern Ireland Protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, is a key part of the 2020 Brexit withdrawal deal and is meant to safeguard the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement by preventing the reintroduction of a land border on the island of Ireland. It ensures trade can continue across the border, but has brought in some new checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Unionists fear it represents a weakening of ties with the mainland.  

Truss and her ERG backers have long wanted to wriggle out of the protocol – agreed by Boris Johnson as a way to “get Brexit over the line” – but opposition has not just come from Ireland and Brussels. US President Joe Biden has also warned against “undoing” the protocol, and while Truss recently said a UK/US trade deal is off the table for now, she might be reluctant to do anything that might further antagonise the White House at such a delicate time for the UK economy. 

In addition to this, Biden’s officials have hinted that he might come to the UK next year to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The lack of a deal and a functioning regional assembly could prove a stumbling block to such a visit. 

Commentators noted that promising signs of a reset in relations with European partners also included the fact that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is taking place in London this week, and the fact that Truss is due to take part in the first meeting of the new European Political Community on Thursday.

So much for the positive signs. There is good reason to be wary of reading too much into the “mood music” and point out that Baker also spoke of his resolve to achieve change. 

“The counterpoint of that [humility] is resolve,” Baker told Tory conference. “No one should underestimate our resolve, this government’s resolve, to get progress on the protocol… It is not acceptable that Northern Ireland is so separate from Great Britain right now under the protocol, the protocol which at the moment is only partially implemented,” he said.

Unionist reaction will be key and it remains to be seen whether the DUP are inclined to be conciliatory themselves. History would suggest this is not their default position. They have said they want the protocol bill fully enacted before they will return to power-sharing. 

Given recent events, one might be forgiven for wondering just how much of what Baker has said is actually government policy. After all, in response to his original apology, Truss said he had been speaking for himself and not on behalf of the government. Perhaps in the same way that Kwarteng had, according to the prime minister, come up with the idea of the controversial top rate tax cut himself. 

In any case, everyone knows that the best thing to do when a car is veering wildly out of control is to proceed with caution. One never knows when it might decide to screech into another u-turn.

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