The penny seems to have belatedly dropped for Boris Johnson. He can have a no-trade-deal relationship with the European Union – what he calls an Australian-style relationship – or he can have Northern Ireland as a seamless member of the UK’s internal market. But under the EU Withdrawal Agreement that he signed, he cannot have both.
If we trade with the EU under WTO terms there will be highly significant tariffs levied on UK-EU trade alongside highly significant fiscal and regulatory differences between the UK and EU. And the default position in the Northern Ireland Protocol is that – without agreement to the contrary between the UK and EU – all goods flowing from GB to NI are 'at risk' of flowing across the NI border into the EU. Therefore they would all be subject to tariffs at the border between GB and NI.
Goods flowing from GB to Northern Ireland would be subject to verification that they are not designated as EU goods intended exclusively for the NI market. This would fracture the UK economically.
So little wonder that the PM wants to prevent it. Except that his plan – to legislate via the internal market and finance bills – looks as though it breaches international law; that fear is apparently why Jonathan Jones, head of the government’s legal department, has quit today. And if it is illegal, presumably the House of Lords will not hesitate to try and frustrate the legislation. What's more, It is not clear that the Withdrawal Agreement, approved by parliament in this session, can be amended before a new Queen’s Speech.
The EU won’t hesitate to enforce what it sees as the clear stipulations of the Withdrawal Agreement as a binding international treaty. So this is one cake Johnson may not be able to have and eat. His choice is between an Australian-style relationship with the EU or a seamless UK, but not both.
Or perhaps there is a better way of looking at this: Johnson’s negotiator Lord Frost seems persuaded that no-trade-deal with the EU is an excellent outcome. But if he thinks that 'threat' is a loaded slingshot pointed at Michel Barnier and the EU’s negotiators, he may find they see him instead pointing it at his boss and the UK.