Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiating strategy over Northern Ireland has been thrown into confusion after a cabinet minister ruled out a full scale confrontation with the EU before Christmas.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the UK’s international trade secretary, said it was “absolutely not” Britain’s intention to trigger the Article 16 process, which overrides post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland, in the coming weeks.
Her comments confirmed an FT report last week that ministers wanted a Christmas “truce” to give UK and EU negotiators time to try to strike a compromise over the border arrangements in Northern Ireland.
“I don’t think anyone’s calling Article 16 before Christmas, absolutely not,” she told the Daily Telegraph.
Trevelyan’s comments undermine the position of Lord David Frost, the UK’s Brexit minister, who has insisted the government stands ready to activate Article 16 at any time, and maintains that it is “on the table”.
Trevelyan suggested the government expected Frost and his EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic to carry on talking for a while yet, saying they “will plod on doing the work that negotiators do”.
Negotiations are continuing between the two sides to try to soften the application of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that deals with trading relations in Northern Ireland.
The protocol left Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods in order to prevent the return of a north-south trade border on the island of Ireland, but it means there are some checks on trade between Great Britain and the region.
“Our preference remains to agree a negotiated solution if we can,” said a Downing Street spokesperson. “Of course we will use Article 16, the safety mechanism, if solutions cannot be found.”
Asked directly if the government was willing to trigger Article 16 before Christmas, the spokesperson appeared to repudiate Trevelyan’s words, saying: “Well, I am not going to put a timetable on it.”
Separately, at a hearing of parliament’s public accounts committee, Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, said ports were preparing well for the introduction of full checks on EU imports from next July.
Ballantyne said there “should be sufficient capacity in terms of physical space”, but added there were “reservations” about whether there would be enough vets and other officials to carry out the checks.
“If government officials, departments and agencies started wanting to pull in over 90 per cent of goods for various checks, then you’d run into a capacity issue,” he told MPs.
Meanwhile Nigel Farage, former Brexit party leader, said he was considering a political comeback in the wake of the continuing migrant crisis in the English Channel, but added that his “gut instinct” was not to do so.
Farage is now a presenter on GB News. However, Tory MPs worry that at some point an anti-immigration party to the right of the Conservatives could re-emerge to channel public frustration on the migration issue.