The decision to reopen the Brexit debate and engineer a clash with Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol risks deepening divisions within the Tories and sparking a diplomatic breakdown, Boris Johnson has been warned.
But most senior Conservatives back the Prime Minister and Liz Truss – the former Remainer who now takes a more hardline stance than most members of the Government as she attempts to burnish her Brexiteer credentials.
Ministers have held back from taking the nuclear option, which would have seen them trigger Article 16 of the Protocol allowing them to ignore many of the obligations incurred by the Brexit deal.
And they have adopted a deliberately leisurely timetable in an attempt to convince Brussels that the UK Government is serious about coming to an agreement which would fix what it sees as the problems the deal currently poses to Northern Irish businesses and consumers.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the Sunday Telegraph: “At the moment, the Protocol, which the EU claims is about protecting the Good Friday Agreement, is the very document putting the Good Friday Agreement most at risk.”
Yet many critics, including within the Conservative party itself, are adamant the gambit is as much political as practical.
One senior Tory who has worked closely with the Foreign Secretary told i she had one eye on her own future, and keeping the favour of the hardline European Research Group: “If something does happen with the leadership, Truss probably wants to be ready. So she’s getting close to the ERG, the Steve Bakers of the world.”
Brexit is one of the few issues where the Conservatives hold a polling lead over Labour, with 29 per cent of voters recently telling YouGov the Tories are best placed to handle the fallout from Britain’s departure from the EU and only 15 per cent preferring the Opposition.
Mr Johnson regularly needles Sir Keir Starmer over his own role in trying to push a more pro-Remain position within Labour, and for his part the Leader of the Opposition tries to avoid the subject altogether.
But the proportion of voters who still regard Brexit as one of the country’s top priorities appears to have diminished over time – one Liberal Democrat MP said: “They are preaching to an ever-shrinking choir.”
Outside observers, including on the continent and in Brussels, are baffled by the Government’s belligerence, particularly at a time when the war in Ukraine was highlighting the value of international co-operation.
An EU diplomat said: “We are in the middle of an era-changing landscape – we just had three black swans, one ongoing, and in the middle of all this mess with potentially immense repercussions for the West, you come up with this. So it’s very daring, I must say. But I’m not sure it’s the safest line of investment in this complex geopolitical landscape.”
i understands that Joe Biden’s administration in Washington DC is very concerned about the threat to Western unity during the Ukraine crisis and has made its feelings clear to both London and Brussels. This week a group of US members of Congress will meet Ms Truss, Mr Lewis and International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan for talks on Northern Ireland.
A senior Tory MP suggested his colleagues would be “up in arms” if a Labour government attempted to renege on an international treaty – and warned Gibraltar’s status could be called into question were the Government to go ahead with ripping up the Protocol.
“This is such a casual approach to our country’s obligations,” the grandee said. “The ERG are obviously slathering at the least, they think this is all marvellous. But we gave back Hong Kong, not because we wanted to, not because we had a vast amount of confidence in one country, two systems, but because a treaty obligation entered into at the end of the opium war in 1848 told us that we had to.
“The Treaty of Utrecht – the Spanish gave the Brits Gibraltar. They could turn around and go ‘well circumstances have changed, we rather like Gibraltar, Gibraltar would be quite useful to us, now forget this treaty thing, because you forget your treaty obligations’.
“You can’t pick and choose. One is either incredibly cavalier over international obligations, or you are not.”
Theresa May echoed this sentiment in the House of Commons, telling MPs: “The Government need to consider not just some immediate issues, but the wider sense of what such a move would say about the United Kingdom and its willingness to abide by treaties that it has signed.”
But there is little hesitation within Government. One minister told i that the problems with the Protocol could not be ignored: “We are the Conservative and Unionist Party and this is really hurting the Union, so we need to do something about it.” The minister, who voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, added: “It’s a negotiation and you can’t succeed in a negotiation if you don’t demonstrate that you have your ace card.”