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Good morning. The UK government is bringing forward a new bill on the Northern Ireland protocol today, setting up what may be months of clash with the EU, the House of Lords and its own MPs. I dig into all that in today’s newsletter. Share your thoughts with me at the below email address.
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Clause for alarm
The government’s proposed new legislation that would allow the UK to ignore parts of the Northern Ireland protocol will be introduced in the House of Commons this afternoon.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be yet another Inside Politics in which I talk about why I think the government’s position is just bluff and bluster. Instead, today we’re going to talk about the bill’s prospects of becoming law at all.
In September 2020, Boris Johnson’s government brought forward the UK Internal Market bill, which dealt with trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. When the bill became law, breaching the UK’s treaty obligations under international law “in a limited and specific way”, as Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis put it, more than 20 Conservative MPs were absent without leave. Back then, of course, rebelling against Johnson’s government was a much more daunting prospect. Johnson’s two Downing Street reboots were still to come, and his government was still being talked about as if it would dominate politics for a decade.
Would-be rebels weren’t as well organized as they are today, either. The Financial Times’s Westminster team got hold of a Tory memo making the case against the bill: something not unheard of in Westminster but certainly something that had gone out of vogue in autumn 2020.
However, while this prime minister is in a weaker position, the office of the prime minister is in a stronger one. Why? Because the passage of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act means that the right to call an election is now back in the hands of the executive. Johnson can use the threat of an election — at a time when the government is behind in polls, and last month’s elections in Australia and last night’s first round in France show that it is not a good moment for incumbent governments full stop — to cow his MPs into voting for difficult measures, an option that wasn’t available to him in 2022.
So it’s hard to say with any real confidence which will win out. Certainly from a short round of phone calls yesterday, my impression is that there are enough potential rebels to defeat the government. But the gap between “considering” rebelling and actually rebelling can be large.
The government’s bigger immediate problem is in the House of Lords. Peers can, if they chose, vote down the legislation because it wasn’t in the government’s manifesto. (In many ways, quite the reverse happened: Johnson went to the country in 2019 lauding his great Brexit deal, not saying that his deal was so flawed it would require three years of political stand-offs and a little light lawbreaking to fix.)
Sir Keir Starmer’s Labor party has been strikingly and markedly reluctant to use its strength in the House of Lords. This is much to the frustration of the Liberal Democrats, who like Labor have a much stronger position in the upper house than they do in the House of Commons.
But Starmer does care a lot about Northern Ireland. He lived there for a time. He has visited regularly as leader, including last week, when he spent two days in Dublin and Belfast. Given that no one who lives in Northern Ireland can vote for him or his party and the number of votes to be had on the issue is so small as to be practically non-existent, this may be a rare occasion in which the labor leader is willing to make prolonged trouble for the Conservative Government in the Lords.
For further info, the FT’s legal commentator, David Allen Green, dissects the Northern Ireland protocol in this videoand our documentary below sheds light on the divisions felt by Northern Irish people on the ground.
Now try this
The PlayStation 5 remains a coveted object for many gamers thanks to shortages and supply bottlenecks, something that Leo Lewis writes about wittily and well here.
I don’t have all that much to add here, other than that Leo’s article is good fun and that promoting it is a rare opportunity to brag about the fact I am one of the lucky few to have got hold of a PS5. At the moment I am making my way through Horizon Forbidden West, albeit very slowly. It’s very beautiful — and the loading times astonishingly swift.