The peace process in Ireland could be sabotaged by Boris Johnson’s desperate attempts to regain the support of far-right backbenchers after he narrowly survived a no-confidence vote of Tory MPs.
Collapsing public support for Johnson finally reached Westminster with opposition within his own parliamentary party reaching levels not seen since the toppling of Margaret Thatcher.
The ‘partygate’ scandal of Johnson’s reckless and illegal parties at Downing Street during the Covid lockdown, combined with the disastrous out-workings of his hardline Brexit strategy, have now been augmented by runaway inflation, transport strikes, and an energy crisis.
In a vote on Monday, the British Prime Minister held onto his position by just 211 votes to 148, meaning that more than 40% of Tory MPs failed to back him.
His ‘war cabinet’ of loyal Brexiteers is now reported to be doubling down on plans to distract the public with a cloud of ‘red meat’ news events. They hope to guarantee the backing of his party’s extreme right-wing by leveraging the jingoism of the royal jubilee.
An attempt by Johnson to effectively declare a trade war on the European Union with legislation to break the Brexit Withdrawal Agrement and renege on the Irish Protocol was due to take place this week.
Johnson had been expected to move his controversial legislation in the House of Commons, but it missed the deadline for inclusion on Thursday’s list of business.
The delay was blamed on opposition from some senior Tory figures over the nature of the backroom scheming to breach international law, with some comparing it to the illegal launch of the 2003 war on Iraq.
Others bemoaned only the failure to include a ‘fig leaf’ to disguise the illegality of Johnson’s actions.
There were also efforts to satisfy the implacable demands of DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, but no indication of any concern about the dangers of an action which could result in the return of a remilitarised border through Ireland.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin accused Downing Street of “acting in bad faith” and warned that any unilateral action would be “deeply damaging” and would mark “a historic low point”.
Speaking during a visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Mr Martin said Europe will respond in a “calm and firm” way when the British government publishes legislation over the protocol.
Mr Martin said he would “not get involved” in what was happening in the Conservative Party, but said any move by London to override parts of the protocol “would not work”.
“That would be deeply damaging because it would represent the violation of international agreements. And it really is very difficult in this day and age to be comprehending that.”
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “The threats by Boris Johnson to take unilateral action by legislating today, tomorrow or any day to breach an international agreement and undermine international rule of law is a dereliction of duty.”
She added: “Our political stability cannot be a hostage to Tory in-fighting. This and the DUP boycott of government is hurting the public at a time when we should have their backs.
“Boris Johnson’s threat to the Protocol is to risk their entire agreement with the EU on withdrawal and with colossal impact.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald added that the Tories “know full well that to legislate and unilaterally denounce the protocol would be to recklessly jeopardise their withdrawal agreement and future trade agreement with the EU.
“There’s no good Brexit but No Deal Brexit is complete destruction.”
While Conservative Party rules theoretically mean Johnson is safe from a confidence vote for another year, he and his party will face two by-elections at which voters will have their say on June 23. The outcome is likely to be sharply negative, adding to the pressure for rapid change at Downing Street.
The 26 County Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney repeated on Tuesday that the concerns of unionists could be dealt with by implementing the protocol “with a lot of flexibility and pragmatism, and by doing that, settling issues that have been causing divisions for far too long in Northern Ireland politics.”
But he added: “In order to do that, we need a partner.”