Good morning. Lord Frost, the Brexit minister, is holding talks this morning with his EU counterpart, Maroš Šefčovič, in an attempt to resolve the increasingly acrimonious dispute about the post-Brexit rules in place governing trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. These involve checks on some goods, and potentially some restrictions (including later this year on sausages and other chilled meats) to protect the EU single market, which includes Northern Ireland. The UK agreed to all these rules when it signed the Northern Ireland protocol. But now it is arguing that there is a need for a rethink because: a) the EU is being too “purist” in enforcing these rules; and b) the UK did not fully realise what the protocol would involve.
Frost made this latter argument in an article for the Financial Times (paywall) at the weekend. He wrote:
We expected to be able to operate it in a way which respected the sensitive politics in Northern Ireland — after all that was the point of making special arrangements in the first place …
We underestimated the effect of the protocol on goods movements to Northern Ireland, with some suppliers in Great Britain simply not sending their products because of the time-consuming paperwork required.
This morning Gavin Barwell, who as Theresa May’s chief of staff was fully involved in the Brexit talks until the summer of 2019, said it was just not plausible for Boris Johnson to claim that he did not know what he was signing up to. Barwell told the Today programme:
I don’t think the EU is ever going to think that is credible. The EU negotiating team have obviously worked very closely with the British negotiating team under both governments. They know the quality of the civil servants involved in that work, and they know that British ministers would have been have been advised in detail on the implications of what they were signing up to.
So I don’t think anyone who’s involved in the process is going to find it credible that the government signed up to something and didn’t understand what the consequences of that were.
Asked if he thought that the government was now only pretending that it did not realise how damaging the protocol would be when it signed it in 2019, Barwell said:
It’s difficult to conceive of any other explanation. When I was working with Theresa [May], Boris Johnson was foreign secretary for a period of that time. He perfectly well understood what the previous iteration of the protocol meant in terms of regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
When the deal was published and the government brought its legislation forward, the explanatory memorandum for the bill, which explained what the bill meant, was very clear what the consequences would be.
And I think he and David Frost are intelligent people. I find it inconceivable that they didn’t understand what they were signing up to. They would have been advised very clearly by the civil service about that.
And I think it’s also important to consider the political context at the time. When Boris took over, he initially tried to prorogue parliament and leave without a deal. He wasn’t able to do that. So he then decided that he wanted to call an election to strengthen his position and it was clearly easier to fight that an election within an “oven-ready” Brexit deal.
So I think the calculation was sign up to whatever is on offer, and then see if we can deal with anything we don’t like down the line. I think the EU have come to the same conclusion as me and that’s why they’re taking the approach that they are now.
Barwell was expanding in his interview on a claim he made on Twitter on Monday. Yesterday Downing Street said Barwell’s analysis was wrong.
Here is the agenda for the day.
Morning: Lord Frost, the Brexit minister, and Maroš Šefčovič, his EU counterpart, co-chair a meeting of the partnership council and the withdrawal agreement joint committee, which will mostly focus on the Northern Ireland protocol.
9.30am: The ONS publishes new figures on vaccine hesitancy, and on antibody levels in the UK.
11.15am: Priti Patel, the home secretary, gives a speech to the Police Federation.
12pm: Boris Johnson faces Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs.
12.30pm: Šefčovič holds a press briefing after his meeting with Frost.
1.30pm: Downing Street is expected to hold its daily lobby briefing.
Afternoon: Johnson travels to Cornwall, where he will be hosting the G7 summit later this week.
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