Past incumbents have politically impaled themselves on everything from unintentionally tasteless singing on a television programme (Peter Brooke) to an interview in which a more recent office-holder (Karen Bradley) revealed her ignorance of the fact that nationalists do not vote for unionist parties.
Brandon Lewis is unlike Mrs Bradley in at least two respects: Intellectually and politically, he is a much bigger beast; and unlike Mrs Bradley who increasingly refused to engage with the media, Mr Lewis has generally fronted up to criticism.
The News letter has repeatedly highlighted the absurdity of Mr Lewis’s denial of the Irish Sea trade border and that was where our interview – held by video-link, due to the pandemic – began. But the encounter moved into territory which reveals something far more profound about this government’s thinking about the Northern Ireland Protocol which creates that internal UK trade frontier.
Just 17 hours after the new border began, Mr Lewis tweeted to say: “There is no ‘Irish Sea Border’”. Ever since, that tweet has hung like a millstone around Mr Lewis’s political neck.
It was not a momentary slip. Rather, it was part of a strategy by him – on behalf of the government – to minimise the reality of the protocol.
Perhaps reassured by the fact that Arlene Foster was in this period making clear that she had given up the political fight to prevent the creation of border control posts, the NIO had in October said on its official Twitter account in response to an article I had written: “There will be no border in the Irish Sea between GB & NI. The NI Protocol explicitly prevents the creation of one....”
Alex Thomas from the Institute for Government later cited that tweet as an example of “increasing abuse of official communications”, and highlighted that government Twitter accounts “are funded by the taxpayer for the purpose of informing the public – not misleading them”.
Given the scale of the new red tape – which is not yet being experienced in all its bureaucratic glory – I ask Mr Lewis if he regrets what he said. It’s an obvious question, and Mr Lewis clearly has a prepared answer, saying that “it is a tweet that hasn’t stood the test of time as well as I would have hoped”.
He frames it as something which essentially he believed at the time, with the government “looking to do the protocol in a way that consumers in Northern Ireland effectively wouldn’t see it, wouldn’t feel it, wouldn’t have an issue with it; clearly that is not the lived experience on the ground and that is why we’ve taken measures over the last couple of months with the EU and obviously we took the measures unilaterally last week.”
I ask him if he now believes that there is no Irish Sea border. He doesn’t answer, saying instead that “my focus is on getting to a position where consumers don’t have any impact in terms of having a differential, in terms of the experience they have as a UK citizen in Northern Ireland as opposed to if they’re UK citizens anywhere else, so that there is no real border at all – that’s got to be the aim”.
Implicitly that accepts that there is now a border, but he goes on to say that his real aim is for Northern Ireland to “have a huge competitive advantage without any disadvantages, as an integral part of the UK”.
Mr Lewis is mild-mannered, but there is an unmistakably bullish tone to many of his comments. He presents grace periods now not being for industry to adapt to bans and find alternative suppliers in the EU – as they once were presented – but for negotiating those bans out of existence.
What if the EU says no? That hoary staple of ministerial answers – “I don’t like getting into hypotheticals” – is deployed, but he effectively does make clear that this is going to happen, even if the EU objects, saying “We want to do this with the EU; we want to find a way that works. With a bit of goodwill, we can work through that.
“But ultimately, the Prime Minister has been clear – we want to ensure that the great Norfolk sausage or Melton Mowbray pork pie can be enjoyed anywhere in the UK, including Belfast.”
He lampoons the EU thinking that chilled sausages need to be banned from Northern Ireland to protect their single market, saying “I personally don’t think that the great British banger is a great threat to the single market of the EU and I’m not sure that the risk of somebody smuggling a Norfolk sausage from Belfast to Dublin for sale is the biggest threat out there. So I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll get a mutually agreeable solution.”
But if the government doesn’t want the terms of the protocol to apply, why did it sign up to it?
Unconvincingly, he says: ”Well, one of the reasons there was a grace period was to get the permanent solution sorted out because it is complicated due to their single market issues and the phytosanitary check issues – we’ve got to use that to solve that problem permanently; not as a cliff-edge suddenly later in the year [where] you can’t source those products [form] wherever in the UK you want to.”
The interview is suffused with the idea that the government thought the protocol would allow an unimpeded flow of GB goods into NI, despite the clear terms of what it agreed and its own assessments that there would not be an unimpeded flow.
It is understandable why the EU is sceptical about this explanation, believing that Mr Johnson knew precisely what he was doing – and it was spelt out in detail to his negotiator, Lord Frost – during the long talks.
In the Commons on Wednesday, Mr Lewis said: “I am determined, as the Prime Minister is, to ensure that the great British banger...will continue to be enjoyed by those who wish to do so across the counties of Northern Ireland in perpetuity.”
The words “determined” and “in perpetuity” seem to commit the government to permanently disregarding the EU’s ban on chilled meat products such as sausages and pies coming from GB to NI.
When asked if the government was prepared to act unilaterally if the EU refuses to agree to that, Mr Lewis is vague, saying: “Our focus is on finding a solution that means they can be enjoyed in perpetuity.
“We’re prepared to do that but George Eustice and the team at DEFRA are working with the EU on that, the Cabinet Office team lead on the protocol to get the solution to that. The Prime Minister has been clear – he wants that solution so that we find a way forward. I’ll not be drawn on what may or may not happen because I’m optimistic that we’ll get a mutually agreeable solution.”
But we are clear: People in Northern Ireland are part of the United Kingdom; they should be able to enjoy products from across the United Kingdom in the same way they would if they were living in Cardiff, Edinburgh or Great Yarmouth.”
It’s an answer which seems to logically commit the UK to unilaterally acting in multiple areas, regardless of what the EU thinks.
There has been debate, and conflicting briefing from different parts of government, as to whether Boris Johnson is trying to radically renegotiate – even tear up – the protocol, or whether he is committed to fully implementing it.
Mr Lewis frames the government’s unilateral move last week in line with the latter category – that it was necessary to act urgently to shore up support for the deal: “If we had not taken those actions last week, I think the protocol would be potentially fatally flawed in the next few weeks.”
He says that “supermarkets and others were saying to me... that we would have had some empty shelves again in the next couple of weeks; not in April – because of their lead times it would have come arguably next week; maybe this week, but probably next week”.
In that situation, he says that the News Letter and other media outlets “would, quite rightly, have been writing about it and showing images of that as another problem with the protocol”.
Even some subsequent agreement with the EU to extend the grace periods would not have resolved the immediate problem, he says, “and that would have been an untenable position”.
Mr Lewis says that he had told Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney that “if we hadn’t taken these actions last week, we’d have been in a really difficult position for the protocol – and actually, it’s in everybody’s interests, particularly actually I would say the Irish government and the EU...that we find a way to make sure the protocol works”.
He said that the protocol “has to work for all communities – and at the minute it’s not really working for any because whether you’re nationalist or unionist or someone who doesn’t have a constitutional view, as a consumer you are affected by the protocol...there is obviously on top of that, and I recognise this, an issue for unionists who feel that there is an impact on identity and I get that, I absolutely get that. I appreciate that some of them would like the protocol torn up, etc.
“I might not agree with the outcome they want, but I understand why they feel that way. One of the ways we’ve got to do with our partners, if you like, the EU – and the Irish government have a part to play in this – is to make sure that they do understand that if the protocol is going to survive and work, it gets to that place where a consumer doesn’t notice it and Northern Ireland has this huge competitive advantage of being able to trade as part of the EU and freely with the EU - which would be a phenomenal competitive opportunity.
“For that to work, the protocol’s got to work for all communities – the whole community. I think sometimes there is a risk that some people forget, to be frank, or don’t realise, that the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement has the east-west strand; it’s important that it’s not one strand, it’s three strands...”
The Secretary of State says he wants to see the EU spending more time engaging with people in Northern Ireland, noting pointedly that European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic had met US representatives this week “who are not party to any of this”.
Mr Lewis said that Mr Sefcovic “is a straight guy” and he believed he would ensure that happened, but thus far there was little evidence of it developing.
Looping back to where we started, I put it to Mr Lewis that politicians rarely say they regret anything. Does he regret his claim that there was no Irish Sea border?
“That tweet has not stood the test of time very well and you’ve got to try to learn from those experience; you’ve got to fall down a bit to know how to get back up...I’ll make sure that I’m bearing those issues in mind when I tweet in the future.”
It seems clear that he does regret it, but he just can’t quite bring himself to say that - a stance in keeping with so many other politicians’ claims about Brexit which were delivered with iron certainty, but haven’t stood the test of time.
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