Boris Johnson is expected to sign a legal plan this week to unilaterally scrap parts of the Brexit deal, despite warnings it could derail talks with Brussels and spark a trade war with the European Union.
Allies of the prime minister sought to calm tensions on Sunday, insisting plans to rewrite parts of the Northern Ireland deal were just “insurance policies” in case talks with the EU to improve its functioning fail.
But Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told Sky News: “The EU cannot compromise if the UK threatens to take unilateral action to pass domestic legislation to set aside international obligations.”
Ministers are expected to meet as early as Tuesday to agree on the plan, although the Treasury is concerned it could eventually lead to EU trade retaliation and exacerbate the cost of living crisis.
Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay, an ally of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has asked the Treasury Department to work on the possible economic impact of a trade war with the European Union, government officials said.
Johnson kicked off a week of intense politics on Monday with a trip to Belfast to deliver a “back to work” message to the leaders of Northern Ireland’s five biggest parties.
Downing Street said the prime minister would urge leaders to quickly form a power-sharing executive in Stormont following this month’s election so they can continue to deal with the region’s “life and death” issues.
Johnson hopes his promise to tackle the damage caused by the NI deal on UK trade with the region – passing a domestic law if necessary – will persuade pro-British union politicians to join the executive branch.
But Michelle O’Neill, vice-president of the nationalist Sinn Féin, which won the elections, said she would make her opposition to UK move over the protocol clear when she meets the prime minister. “I will tell Boris Johnson, single Boundary action will deepen political instability and economic uncertainty and must not happen.”
Before Johnson’s visit to Belfast, the Democratic Unionist Party, which finished second in the election, blocked the election of a spokesman for Stormont as part of its boycott of the executive branch until the deal was reformed.
The DUP’s caretaker economy minister, Gordon Lyons, has called for “actions, not words” to protect Northern Ireland’s status in the UK. “We have set seven tests We will judge the government’s actions based on these tests,” he said.
Downing Street sought to defuse tensions with Dublin and the rest of the EU over the weekend, with some government insiders accusing Foreign Secretary Liz Strass of upping the ante with aggressive briefings, which her team has denied.
Johnson’s aides insisted on Sunday that while legislation to rewrite part of the deal “remains the most likely option”, it is an “insurance policy” if talks with the EU to reduce trade disruptions fail.
Government officials conceded it could take a year to pass any legislation and expected stiff resistance from some Conservative MPs and the House of Lords.
The DUP boycott froze not only the power-sharing executive, but the entire parliament, and started a six-month negotiating process that could lead to new elections this winter.
Coveney warned that any move by London to drop the arrangements would “make headlines around the world that the UK is preparing to breach international law”.
But Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC he did not believe the EU would respond with a trade war. “I think it would be totally self-defeating if they got into a trade war. But it’s up to them,” he said.