Remember When These Tories Said They Liked The Northern Ireland Protocol, Before Ripping It Up?

Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Iain Duncan Smith: all Tory party leaders at one point who changed their minds over the NI Protocol
Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Iain Duncan Smith: all Tory party leaders at one point who changed their minds over the NI Protocol

Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Iain Duncan Smith: all Tory party leaders at one point who changed their minds over the NI Protocol

The government is celebrating after Rishi Sunak re-negotiated Northern Ireland’s place in the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU.

For context, the original version included a trade border down the Irish Sea for British goods going to Northern Ireland.

Sunak has now altered it, so that British goods will be sorted into green and red lanes on their way to Northern Ireland, reducing the substantial paperwork which has been causing trade friction.

It’s being heralded as a triumph and simultaneously a blow to Boris Johnson’s attempts to return to frontline politics, as he was reportedly hoping it was a problem only he could resolve.

But, it’s worth remembering that all of the Conservatives who are now praising the Windsor Framework (Sunak’s tweaked version of the Northern Ireland Protocol) once extended the same excitement to Johnson’s original deal in 2019...

PM Rishi Sunak

Back in November 2019, when he was chief secretary to the treasury, Sunak told Sky News that his Tory government (with Johnson as PM) would “get Brexit done by the end of January” and “move onto everything else”.

He voted for Johnson’s Brexit deal which included the protocol  – but by August 2022, he was promising to “fix” it.

On Monday, Sunak championed his new deal in the Commons, saying: “Core to the problems with the protocol was that it treated goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland as if they were crossing an international customs border.”

He added that this “created extra costs and paperwork for businesses who had to fill out complex customs declarations”.

Ex-PM Boris Johnson

As the original architect of the protocol, it’s no surprise the former PM used to gush over it.

Johnson was so convinced that the public were sold on his idea that within just months of entering No.10, and shortly after getting the protocol over the line with his EU counterparts, he called a snap general election.

He vowed at the time that the NI Protocol would create “no visible or practical changes to their lives” so those living near the border can “carry on as before”.

He famously claimed that there would be “unfettered access of goods and services between all parts of the UK”.

By 2021, Johnson had done a complete U-turn, calling the debacle an “absurd situation”.

He told the BBC in Northern Ireland: “If it looks as though the EU is going to be very dogmatic about it and we continue to [be in an] absurd situation so you can’t bring in rose bushes with British soil into Northern Ireland, you can’t bring British sausages into Northern Ireland, then frankly I’m going to, we’ll have to take further steps.”

Johnson with the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in 2019, hashing out the NI Protocol
Johnson with the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in 2019, hashing out the NI Protocol

Johnson with the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in 2019, hashing out the NI Protocol

Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker

In November 2019, Baker, a prominent Eurosceptic and then-backbencher, made it clear that he and his pressure group, the European Research Group or ERG, would back Johnson’s protocol.

The protocol was the main difference between Johnson’s version of the Brexit deal and his predecessor Theresa May’s – she wanted a “backstop” instead.

He wrote on his website at the time: “We voted against Theresa May’s deal three times because it would not deliver anything recognisable as Brexit. This is not the case with Boris Johnson’s deal and we are backing it.

“For two vital reasons, Boris’ deal is not the same as what went before.

“First, the whole UK ‘backstop’ of customs union with intrusive regulation and a veto for the EU on future arrangements is gone. That dramatically changes the negotiating dynamic so that the UK can succeed in securing a great future.”

He also praised how Johnson had changed the protocol so the UK was no longer aligned to EU trade policy.

The ERG later admitted it backed the deal to get Brexit over the line in the hope that it could be re-negotiated later.

By October last year, Baker’s views had started to change. He told the Tory party conference that Ireland and the EU had “legitimate interests”.

Now, Baker is a minister of state for Northern Ireland.

On Monday, he told the BBC that Sunak had “pulled a blinder” by “securing a really fantastic result for everyone involved” with the new Windsor Framework.

“I think it’s a fantastic achievement for all parties to this deal – for Ireland, for the EU, for the unionists and for Eurosceptics. So I’m delighted that we can move on to a new chapter.”

Steve Baker
Steve Baker

Steve Baker

Lord David Frost

Frost, currently a member of the House of Lords, had been at the forefront of Brexit negotiations with the EU from 2019 and 2020 and Johnson’s Europe adviser until March 2021, meaning he had a hand in the final Brexit deal.

He became a cabinet minister in March 2021 too, but resigned in December 2021.

He announced last April that the Northern Ireland Protocol left the Good Friday Agreement on “life support” and therefore needed urgent renegotiation, according to PA news agency.

He told LBC radio: “I think it is obvious that the protocol as it currents stands cannot survive.

“It must be renegotiated or the government must act unilaterally.

“I simply don’t understand why the EU will not renegotiate it and move on to a more collaborative relationship with us as we all want.”

By May, he was telling the Telegraph: ”We could endlessly go over the circumstances that produced the Protocol in 2019, as many seem to want – preferring that to dealing with today’s problems.

“We knew the deal was far from perfect. We never wanted the arrangements that limited trade into Northern Ireland. But our Protocol got rid of the hated “backstop” that would have left us stuck in the EU customs union and unable to run a trade or economic policy of our own.”

Lord David Frost
Lord David Frost

Lord David Frost

Iain Duncan Smith

At the time, Duncan Smith – former leader of the Tory party and current backbencher – praised the protocol when Johnson unveiled it.

“If there is anything about this arrangement [the withdrawal agreement bill] that we have not now debated, thrashed to death, I would love to know what it is,” he said.

 But, by 2021, he said: “The protocol is simply not working.

“These are not teething problems. We have already seen companies that normally ship to Northern Ireland now saying publicly that they will not bother to do so any more if it is too difficult.

“We are also seeing diversion: some supermarkets and others are talking about depots in southern Ireland rather than in mainland GB.”

He also wrote on his own website in 2022: ” The reality is that when the Protocol was agreed the overriding reason given by the EU negotiators was that the Good Friday Agreement must be upheld at all costs. After just under three years of negotiation, the Protocol has done the opposite and has not only damaged the Good Friday Agreement but also broken its own provisions."