Analysis: leak blindsided US officials, caused shock waves in Europe and appears to have annoyed No 10
Given that it has just announced a bill that could spark a trade war in the middle of a cost of living crisis, it is remarkable how often members of the government say that what they want is for everyone to calm down.
The intention to legislate is now formally announced but when the bill will be seen by MPs is intentionally unclear. The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, says it was never meant to be this week. Of course it wasn’t. Now the only commitment is “before the summer”.
Was it meant to happen like this? The original plan began with Conor Burns, with his new title of US special envoy on the Northern Ireland protocol, being dispatched to Boston and Washington to bend ears over the UK’s predicament. Burns was tasked with softening up a sceptical White House that the protocol needed to change, armed with the hefty tomes of paperwork required from traders under the new system to demonstrate how bad the situation is.
And it might have been a reasonable diplomatic mission if the Times had not spiked his guns with leaked plans for the bill that was announced by Liz Truss on Tuesday. US diplomats and key lawmakers fumed at being blindsided.
A day earlier in the US, papers were briefed on how hardline Truss was prepared to be and how her cabinet colleagues – and leadership rivals – Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove had gone soft. It was “leadership feather-fluttering”, one cabinet source said of Truss.
The leak of the plans sent shock waves through European capitals, prompting threats to cancel the UK’s trade deal, one of three weapons available to either side in the trade deal. Truss hit back in late-night briefed quotes, saying solutions proposed by the EU would make the situation worse.
All of the above might suggest a row has been choreographed – Boris Johnson
has been happy to use memories of the Brexit fight as a way to gee up flagging backbench support. But sources close to Johnson
seem genuinely miffed and there has been no attempt to disguise the irritation with Truss over how this has been handled.
No 10 sources have openly briefed against Truss in lurid detail across the Sunday papers. Even on Monday they were emphasising that Johnson
had had firm words with his foreign secretary and told her to cool things down. So now there is some need for damage control – perhaps because Johnson
had hoped he could adopt a statesmanlike persona and announce the bill with a “more in sorrow than in anger” tone.
For the past few days he has been playing the peacemaker, releasing a 2,200-word essay on Northern Ireland on Monday that was far more thoughtful on issues of nationhood than some of his critics might have expected. But of course it is also probably satisfying for Johnson
to see his biggest rivals, Sunak and Truss, a little cowed – though his foreign secretary has ultimately got what she wanted.
Most ministers are optimistic there will be progress in talks, as are the Tory MPs who are wary of voting for the bill but believe it will never come to that. Those with even medium-term memories will remember a similar tactic on the internal markets bill and its plans to break international law “in a limited and specific way”. The bill was a transparent negotiating tactic and was dropped as soon as it became expedient to do so.
Still, it is hard to argue there is not even more urgency now with Northern Ireland lacking a functioning government. On Monday the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, stared down the tactic and said the announcement that legislation was coming was “just words”.
The big, perhaps unintended consequences of the past week is that it seems to have turbo-charged the DUP into going further on their anti-protocol tactics than before, warning they will not return to Stormont until the law is enacted.
If this is all “just words”, no one knows quite how the real action will play out.