Boris Johnson’s Protocol move is a Brexit gamble with EU trade, US relations, Western unity and the DUP

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After months of threats, Boris Johnson has finally decided to take a gamble on unilaterally ripping up large parts of the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland he signed less than three years ago.

It has become apparent, since the UK left the EU, that the Prime Minister long considered the Northern Ireland Protocol as somewhat temporary, something to be fixed later, after “getting Brexit done”.

It is true that the deal contained provisions to revisit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland as they were put in place.

And Mr Johnson has a case to argue that the way the Protocol is being implemented has been unsustainable, from the now ceased hostilities in the “sausage war” banning British chilled meats from Northern Ireland, to onerous rules around the travel of pets.

He resisted unilateral action for months, attempting to carve out a compromise with the EU in negotiations.

But his hand has been somewhat forced by the hardening position of unionists in Northern Ireland, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsing the Stormont institutions until the Protocol is renegotiated, which the EU is refusing to do.

On the face of it, Mr Johnson is taking a huge gamble that could damage the UK significantly.

First, the EU has threatened to start a trade war by imposing tariffs on British goods if the plans are ever realised – something that would be hugely damaging with the UK staring down the barrel of a possible recession.

Secondly, US President Joe Biden – who is descended from Irish Catholics – and his allies have largely sided with the EU in calling for a negotiated solution within the framework of the current Protocol, and have made clear that they would look dimly upon the UK acting unilaterally.

Falling out with the Americans risks putting the prospect of a UK-US trade deal – once held up as one of Brexit’s biggest prizes – further into deep freeze.

Thirdly, this squabbling between Western powers is not exactly helpful when unity is required to tackle Russia, following Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine.

But there are hints that Mr Johnson recognises these risks.

The Prime Minister has tried to calm the rhetoric over the deal and notably plumped for legislation as his method to take unilateral action.

It is likely to take months, or even a year, to ever come into force, rather than the long-threatened triggering of the Protocol’s Article 16 to immediately suspend parts of the deal.

It suggests that the gamble he is actually taking is that he can kick the can down the road so a fudge can be found that gives the DUP a ladder to climb down and re-enter Stormont’s political institutions.