Cabinet divisions break out over UK plan to override Brexit treaty

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Tensions flared in Boris Johnson’s cabinet on Wednesday as the prime minister prepared to publish legislation that would enable the UK government to rip up parts of its 2020 Brexit treaty with the EU.

Johnson snapped at Liz Truss, foreign secretary, accusing her of toughening up draft legislation to rewrite parts of the Northern Ireland protocol after pressure from Eurosceptic Tory MPs, according to people briefed on the meeting of cabinet ministers.

The protocol governs Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements, and Johnson is pressing Brussels to agree to changes because of concerns it has unleashed political tensions in the region as well as unacceptable border friction.

“The prime minister’s focus is on resolving the trade issues in Northern Ireland and reaching a negotiated solution,” said one Johnson ally, suggesting the prime minister had become more dovish on the issue.

One senior Tory said Truss seemed intent on a confrontation with Brussels and the legislation to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol was now being tweaked to make it less abrasive and to ensure the door was left open to a compromise with the EU.

Senior figures from the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs confirmed they had been consulted by Truss on the legislation. Johnson’s allies believe Truss is wooing the group ahead of a future bid for the Conservative party leadership.

Meanwhile several cabinet ministers demanded assurances that the legislation, due to be published next week, did not break international law, according to people familiar with Wednesday’s meeting.

Rishi Sunak, chancellor, who has previously warned of a “worst-case scenario” trade war with the EU, was among those demanding assurances that Britain would not be accused of lawbreaking.

His concerns reflect misgivings in Whitehall over whether new legal advice obtained by attorney-general Suella Braverman would sufficiently protect the government from accusations it was breaking international law.

Michael Gove, levelling-up secretary, has also expressed concerns about the impact of the legislation on Britain’s reputation, said people with knowledge of the situation.

Micheál Martin, Irish prime minister, told MEPs any UK unilateral move would “mark a historic low point, signalling a disregard for essential principles of laws which are the foundation of international relations”.

Some senior Conservatives fear the legislation to enable changes to the Northern Ireland protocol will prompt more Tory infighting after more than 40 per cent of Johnson’s MPs refused to back him on Monday in a confidence vote following the partygate scandal.

“Now is not the time to be poking the bear,” said one Tory official, referring to the Conservative parliamentary party. “It’s absolute madness.”

Johnson was said by one colleague to have been “irritated” that the legislation went further than a government paper on reforming the Northern Ireland protocol published last year by the then Brexit minister Lord David Frost.

The legislation will allow British ministers to “switch off” parts of the protocol deemed to be responsible for trade friction and political tensions in Northern Ireland, notably within the pro-UK Unionist community.

Under Johnson’s Brexit deal, Northern Ireland stayed in the EU single market for goods, allowing the region to trade freely across an open border with the Republic of Ireland. Checks were introduced on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The legislation would allow UK ministers to remove checks on goods going to Northern Ireland that were expected to stay in the region.

Truss’s allies denied Johnson was irritated with her, but some Tory critics of the legislation believe it could end up satisfying nobody.

One of the objectives of the legislation is to persuade the pro-UK Democratic Unionist party to rejoin the Northern Ireland government at Stormont.

The DUP is currently refusing to share power with Sinn Féin, the nationalist party that won May’s regional elections, as part of its protest against the Northern Ireland protocol.

But Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland secretary, told ministers the DUP may continue its boycott of Stormont, said people familiar with Wednesday’s meeting.

Some unionists believe the DUP will maintain its stance until the legislation is on the statute book.

“That could take a year,” said one Tory official close to the negotiations. “They don’t trust Boris.”

The predominantly pro-EU House of Lords is expected to delay the legislation as well as seek to heavily amend it.

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