Liz Truss is about to get her hands on Brexit Dynamite

Comment

The longer people in Northern Ireland live with the Brexit deal known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, the more they seem to appreciate it. A majority (55%) see the protocol as appropriate to manage the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and 53% see it as a benefit to their economy.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have flaws, which many would like to see resolved through negotiations. But that wide popularity is worth bearing in mind, as the woman tipped to be Britain’s next prime minister looks set to blow the whole deal upside down.

Liz Truss is likely to do so by triggering Article 16 of the Protocol – a provision which allows an aggrieved party to suspend a particular part of the agreement if it causes “serious economic, societal or environmental hardship”. This would trigger a process of consultation and negotiation.

QuicktakeNorthern Ireland Protocol

The enactment of the long-threatened Article 16 would mark an escalation of tensions between the UK and the European Union, but at least a gradual one. However, Truss also has a more indiscriminate weapon in the works, in the form of legislation that unilaterally overrides parts of the protocol itself. Its apparent aim, beyond throwing red meat at hardline Brexit supporters, is to force Europe to make concessions and end the Democratic Unionist Party’s boycott of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, which undermines governance and political stability there. But while the DUP might be appeased, passage of the bill would be a big middle finger for Brussels.

The bill sparked a brawl in the House of Lords, a battle royale with Brussels and potentially awkward conversations with the Biden administration, which has a keen interest in keeping the peace in Northern Ireland. How Truss resolves these pressures will be the biggest early test of his ability to control his party and manage Britain’s international reputation.

Truss argues the bill is necessary to preserve peace in Northern Ireland and the integrity of the UK. Former Prime Minister Theresa May disagrees: “Do I consider this to be legal under international law? Will he achieve his goals? Does this at least maintain the position of the UK in the eyes of the world,’ she asked as she spoke against the bill in parliament. “My answer to these three questions is no.”

A first test of the government’s intentions will come when the House of Lords returns a series of amendments to the bill, initiating a game of parliamentary ping pong, as it is literally called. In a scathing report in July, a Lords committee declared the legislation “completely contrary to the principles of parliamentary democracy”. Not only does this breach the UK-EU deal, but the bill is something of an empty vessel into which ministers can pour whatever flavor of regulation they wish. The committee described the power grab as “unprecedented in its cavalier treatment of parliament, the EU and the government’s international obligations”.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, however, the Lords can only delay legislation, not block it. And it’s not clear that the unelected and often unwieldy upper house has the appetite for a drawn-out battle, particularly if the Tories are united behind the bill. It’s also not an easy battle for the opposition Labor Party, which doesn’t want to be branded anti-Brexit.

Truss can overcome the Lords, but the only real way to reduce some of Protocol’s implementation problems (they can’t be completely eliminated) is through negotiation. The EU remains Britain’s largest trading partner. Already, the slowdown in funding for scientific research – directly linked to the UK’s position on the protocol – is causing massive damage to a sector the government relies on to drive innovation.

Truss’ modus operandi has been to speak out, take maximalist positions and play with her base (as she did recently when she said the jury didn’t know if French President Emmanuel Macron was friend or foe ). This approach may tickle its supporters and distract some from the rising cost of living, but it risks backfiring. Her tone will be as closely watched as the policy itself once she takes office.

If cooler heads prevail, there’s plenty of potential for compromise. There is an appreciation in Europe that the British have some good points about the problems with the protocol, notes Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform. But there must be a basis of trust on which to reach an agreement.

And there is no reason for the EU to be adamant about the existing system if improvements can be found. The British proposal for a system of green and red lanes, so that goods destined to remain in Northern Ireland do not have to go through customs, is not unreasonable. The key to making this work will be the sharing of real-time data and the effective use of penalties to prosecute offenders. The bloc could even afford to give Truss a relatively inexpensive national victory by changing the wording of the protocol if that helps solve the problems.

Ireland’s role, as always, will be essential. “If Truss wants to surprise and take a trip to Dublin, a deal is doable,” Grant says. “But it needs to focus on the practical problem of trade frictions, not more ideological things.” Any flexibility would likely not extend to the UK’s separate request that the European Court of Justice be excluded from governance agreements.

Truss should not underestimate the EU’s willingness to retaliate if things get out of hand. Brussels would probably interpret it as a bad omen, for example, if former Brexit negotiator David Frost had a say in European matters. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where blow for blow leads to the EU notifying that it intends to suspend the post-Brexit trade deal. The harm would be on both sides, of course, but the consequences for Britain would be hard to overstate.

Truss’s result against the EU will make her the party’s most underrated political operative since Margaret Thatcher – or confirm the suspicion that she is a disastrous choice for the leader at a perilous time for the country. What will it be: a hothead that will shrink Britain’s economy and further damage its global position, or a cold hand that can help restore both? Watch Northern Ireland.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Is Kwasi Kwarteng ready to save the British economy? : Adrian Wooldridge

• Is Burberry ready for a new creative direction? : Andrea Felsted

• The UK rental market crisis has been going on for years: Stuart Trow

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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