Liz Truss is reportedly preparing draft legislation that would unilaterally scrap key parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, removing the need for checks on goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
No bill was announced in the Queen’s speech on Tuesday but the foreign secretary is reported to have asked officials to prepare the draft, which would put the UK in breach of its treaty obligations.
As well as scrapping checks, the draft legislation would also take away powers of the European court of justice and remove all requirement for Northern Irish businesses to follow EU regulations.
A government source confirmed Truss intended to move unilaterally to prepare to change parts of the protocol but denied the UK government had given up on negotiation. Truss is understood to have formed the view that the UK cannot wait for negotiations to conclude before preparing to act unilaterally, given the election results in Northern Ireland over the weekend.
Senior UK sources emphasised that stability in Northern Ireland was at stake with the glacial pace of talks and while the EU has made clear that its mandate is not set to change.
Some cabinet ministers, including the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, were said to be uneasy about the high stakes involved in Truss’s strategy and the possibility of a trade war with the EU as the UK stands on the brink of a potential recession.
Cabinet sources suggested Truss’s manoeuvres were part of “leadership feather-fluttering” – hinting they were designed to put her at odds with Sunak in the minds of Conservative backbenchers. Sources close to Gove and Sunak denied they were trying to block Truss’s plans.
The draft bill was initially understood to be intended to grant ministers the power in principle to override the treaty – but not necessarily to be used in practice. However, the Times reported on Tuesday that the bill would go further than expected and scrap parts of the protocol.
Such a move is expected to provoke legal retaliation by the EU were it to go ahead – including the bloc potentially imposing new tariffs.
Truss will argue that the election results in Northern Ireland give the negotiations a fresh sense of urgency because the Democratic Unionist party has said it will boycott any participation in a new government at Stormont until the issue is resolved.
Sinn Féin, which won the most seats at Stormont for the first time, said Northern Ireland was becoming “collateral damage” in the dispute.
Boris Johnson spoke to Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, on Tuesday morning. No 10 said he underlined the grave situation in Northern Ireland and reiterated warnings about the protocol.
“Despite repeated efforts by the UK government over many months to fix the protocol, including those sections related to the movement of goods and governance, the European Commission had not taken the steps necessary to help address the economic and political disruption on the ground,” No 10 said of the call.
“The prime minister reiterated that the UK government would take action to protect peace and political stability in Northern Ireland if solutions could not be found.”
A UK government spokesperson said: “Our focus has been, and will continue to be, preserving peace and stability in Northern Ireland. No decisions have yet been taken on the way forward. However, the situation is now very serious.
“We have always been clear that action will be taken to protect the Belfast [Good Friday] agreement if solutions cannot be found to fix the protocol.”
The Irish deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who reached agreement with Johnson on the protocol in October 2019, suggested the UK was using threats to gain leverage in negotiations.
However, he warned the UK could not simply “resile” from the international treaty by unilaterally tearing up the protocol.
“If that is their approach, then we have a real problem here,” he told RTÉ. “It’s one thing to engage in a bit of sabre rattling … but if they were to actually go down that route, it will be very serious.”
Labour’s Jenny Chapman, a shadow minister, said the action “risks a trade war during a cost of living crisis”.