Monday 16 May 2022

Yet another cunning plan seems likely to fail


There are contradictory reports about what the government is or is not planning to do about the Northern Ireland Protocol this week. Some are suggesting that the PM is telling his ministers to tone down the rhetoric, and that he will vow not to scrap the protocol; whilst others are suggesting that he is imminently going to give the green light to a new parliamentary bill which will effectively nullify part of the international agreement which he signed. There might be circumstances in which ‘keeping the other side guessing’ is a valid negotiating tactic, but sending mixed messages to a party such as the DUP, which sees everything in stark black and white terms, before meeting with them isn’t one of them. Indeed, giving that party mixed messages and a succession of broken promises rather than honesty about what was going to happen and why is one of the causes of the current mess. The mixed messages look less like a negotiating tactic than a reflection of the fact that the PM can’t make up his own mind and simply veers between options depending on who he spoke to last.

It appears that getting Tory MPs to pass an Act of Parliament which specifically authorises ministers to over-ride the provisions of an international treaty that they negotiated and signed up to may not be a simple task. There are still a few brave souls in the traditional party of law and order who cling to the outdated belief that abiding by international law is, on the whole, rather a good thing. And then there is the House of Lords. Given that this is not a manifesto commitment by the governing party (indeed, there was a clear manifesto commitment to implement the agreement, not to change it), their lordships have the constitutional right to delay the legislation for up to a year – and it is highly likely that, with no whipped majority available to the PM, they will do precisely that.

The measure is likely to be sold to the dissenting MPs on the basis that the government has no intention of using the powers which the legislation, if and when passed, will give them; it is merely a bargaining stick to convince the EU that it must change its stance or else. Even assuming that a sufficient number of dissenting MPs are persuaded by that (it does, after all, require them to believe the word of a known serial liar), it is unlikely that their noble lordships will fall for it. But, not for the first time, it looks as though the PM and his team have either not thought through the consequences of their actions, or else are assuming that what happens in the UK is somehow invisible to those pesky foreigners in Brussels and beyond.

If they could only try and stand in the shoes of the EU Commission for just a few moments, they might start to understand that watching the UK government struggle to get unilateral changes through its own parliament doesn’t exactly come across as a huge threat requiring their immediate capitulation. What it does encourage is quite the opposite: do nothing while the UK parliamentary drama plays out, with at least an evens chance that the whole thing will blow up in the face of the UK Government, or even that there will be a change of government during that year. It also, of course, gives them twelve months to plan quietly and implement their own response to any attempt to unilaterally change the rules through act of parliament. The UK government will in the meantime make the same preparations for implementing its proposed changes as it did for the Brexit Agreement itself (i.e. do nothing). It will then come as a complete surprise when the EU, once again, seamlessly implements its own fallback plan, leaving the UK Government astounded at the inability of those Europeans to understand just how special the UK is.

No comments: