Owen Polley: Suella Braverman was right to want to keep the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, but Rishi Sunak reneged on his pledge
In this message, the outgoing home secretary alleged that she only accepted the post, back in October 2022, on certain conditions. Intriguingly, these included an assurance from Rishi Sunak that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill would be delivered, “in (its) then existing form and timetable”.
Admittedly, this was just one of Braverman’s complaints.
A great deal of her letter focused on immigration, both legal and illegal. The former minister believes that people are arriving in Britain at a rate that threatens our society and its way of life.
For that reason, you could say that, alongside the NI Protocol, she identified two existential problems for the UK.
There are, it’s fair to point out, some difficulties with Mrs Braverman’s letter. We don’t know, for instance, whether Sunak really promised firmly to pass the protocol bill. That legislation was introduced under Boris Johnson’s administration and it was intended to put right many of the worst aspects of the Irish Sea border. Liz Truss was the foreign secretary who introduced the bill, but even she expressed a preference for negotiating a settlement with the EU.
Then there’s the question of why none of these alleged breaches of trust by the prime minister caused Mrs Braverman to resign. The Windsor Framework was enacted in February and it was apparent immediately that it meant the end of the protocol bill.
Her correspondence, many pundits pointed out, was more like a resignation letter than a reaction to her dismissal. The outgoing home secretary accused Sunak of betraying his promises to the nation, but we must assume that had she not been sacked, she would have continued to serve in his government.
That does not make Mrs Braverman’s intervention insignificant.
The letter strengthens the case that Mr Sunak abandoned Northern Ireland, by signing the Windsor Framework rather than persisting with the bill. It showed that at least one key member of his cabinet believed the legislation was a critical part of dealing with the sea border and should not be jettisoned.
The bill was not a solution to everything that was wrong with the protocol. Many of its powers were to be used at the discretion of ministers, rather than applying automatically. It proposed green and red lanes that Jim Allister pointed out confirmed the existence of a customs border.
But the barriers to using the green lane were supposed to be less formidable than what we have now. The government claimed that companies would be presumed to be entitled to use this less arduous route, unless their goods were travelling on to the EU.
Critically, the bill offered a ‘dual regulatory’ regime, allowing products for our market to follow British or European rules. And it put UK courts in charge of enforcing matters relating to EU law.
During his Conservative leadership bid, Rishi Sunak said that his plan to solve the protocol problem was, “To push on and pass the bill that is in parliament.” He implied that any negotiation with the EU would have to deliver as much as that legislation, if it were to become a viable alternative. And when the Windsor Framework was agreed, he claimed it removed ‘any sense’ of a border in the Irish Sea. On all of these statements he either reneged or they proved to be nonsense.
That was underlined again this week, as new UK rules on plant health were scrutinised by the House of Lords. These regulations treat Northern Ireland as a ‘third’ or foreign country, when potatoes and other plants move to Great Britain from this jurisdiction, because we remain under EU regulations.
On Wednesday, another Lords sub-committee heard that the Windsor Framework will steadily become worse. James Webber, from the multinational law firm Shearman and Sterling, told peers that the framework would not change the fact that, “A foreign system of law is applying to the production of goods in Northern Ireland…. And that over time will reduce competitiveness, productivity, economic and wage growth.”
His view, that the deal, “reflects an underlying mistake, which remains uncorrected,” added weight to the Braverman letter.
It was easy to pick holes in her statement. Like most politicians, she can be accused of inconsistencies and opportunism.
The old canards, about Tory ministers being either uncaring or ignorant about Northern Ireland, were soon recycled. This is a charge brought by little Ulstermen and little Irelanders alike, whenever a mainland politician contradicts their opinions.
In truth, the NI Protocol Bill was never as radical or as reckless as it was portrayed. At least, though, it made a genuine attempt to solve problems with the Irish Sea border, unlike the Windsor Framework, which is the same old protocol banger with a respray and a reset mileage clock.
Suella Braverman, for all her faults, belatedly pointed out what we all know, but most of us wanted to ignore.
Her sacking sped up Lord David Cameron’s return to Rishi Sunak’s cabinet.
As Conservative leader, Cameron spoke about never being neutral on the Union and was firm enough to try to integrate Northern Ireland into national politics, by standing joint election candidates with the UUP.
As foreign secretary, he is officially responsible for the UK’s relationship with the EU. If he wants to be remembered as a genuine, reliable unionist, he should persuade Sunak to listen to Braverman and revisit the failed framework deal.