Northern Ireland

ANALYSIS: Cycle of stunts, threats and theatrics designed to distract us

Political Correspondent John Manley
Political Correspondent John Manley

WE should no longer be surprised by the British government’s antics. Boris Johnson and his team of top Tories will seemingly do anything to save their own skins.

Due primarily to the prime minister’s duplicity and his inability to hold his hands up, the ‘partygate’ scandal has dragged on for months, always threatening to end his tenure at No 10 – yet somehow he evades the fatal blow. The justification for his failure to fess up from the likes of Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has been excruciating, every utterance undermining the credibility of both men, and much more importantly, politics itself.

Then there are the diversionary stunts. First it was Priti Patel’s hare-brained and eye-wateringly expensive plan to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda, an initiative so utterly extravagant that it could only have been deliberately devised to elicit an adverse reaction. Now, as the heat is turned up further on Johnson through an investigation into whether he misled MPs, reports emerge of planned legislation that would enable the British government to scrap parts of the protocol.

The report in the Financial Times came within 24 hours of arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg saying Britain would “reform” the post-Brexit trade arrangements. Coupled with remarks Boris Johnson made in India about being ready to take measures if necessary to “fix" the protocol, it would appear we are once again in the realms of deliberate antagonism and blatant expediency.

Discussions with the EU over resolving the often overplayed issues with the protocol have been parked for the duration of the assembly election campaign. Yet somehow this is being portrayed as Brussels’ intransigence, even though a breakthrough on guarantees about the supply of medicines to the north emerged little over a fortnight ago.

It has been suggested that the necessary legislation the British government needs could be included in the Queen's speech on May 10. On one hand, this appears like a major escalation, yet on the other it looks like they’re laying on the histrionics a little too thickly. We’ve all been here before with last year’s UK Internal Markets Bill and Liz Truss’s remarks in January that suggested the British government planned to tear up the Withdrawal Agreement. For all the bluster and inflammatory rhetoric of the past 18 months we’ve seen no substantive action, no triggering of Article 16 and no suspension of checks on goods arriving from Britain. They’ll huff and puff to create a distraction and placate the European Research Group but would they really be foolhardy enough to renege on an international treaty with all the reputational damage that would entail?

On the domestic front, some are dressing up the latest stunt as a move that may help the faster restoration of the Stormont institutions after the election. That’s at best a naively optimistic reading of a plan that would have ramifications much greater than a few hundred protesters taking to the streets. This British government has apparently gone out of its way to indulge the DUP yet Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's party has gained no tangible advantage, while always running the risk of again being thrown under a bus.

The simplest way to ensure stability and put devolution on a firm footing is to tell the DUP a few home truths and stress that they must live with the consequences of their actions in backing Brexit. The continued cycle of stunts, threats and theatrics is becoming tiresome.