Downing Street said late last night the UK government is prepared to consider tearing up elements of Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal, despite a Cabinet minister insisting the option would not be used before Christmas.
Number 10 said there was no timetable for whether or not it would unilaterally use the powers under Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol if changes to the deal cannot be agreed with Brussels.
The comments amount to a rejection of International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan’s claim that the step would not be taken before Christmas.
The UK has repeatedly said the difficulties caused by the operation of the protocol meant that use of Article 16 would be justified as a safeguard.
“Our preference remains to agree a negotiated solution if we can,” the spokesman said.
“Of course, we will use Article 16, the safety mechanism, if solutions can’t be found.”Downing Street spokesman last night
Asked whether the UK would be willing to use it before Christmas, the spokesman added: “I’m not going to put a timetable on it.
“We continue to believe that the conditions for triggering that safety mechanism of Article 16 have been met, that remains the Government position but we will continue to look for a consensual negotiated solution.”
In a Daily Telegraph interview, International Trade Secretary Ms Trevelyan said: “I don’t think anyone’s calling Article 16 before Christmas, absolutely not.”
Last week her Cabinet colleague Michael Gove said that “while, of course, it’s always possible that Article 16 may require to be invoked, we’re confident that we’ll be able to make progress without it”.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “Ministers are able to give their assessment of the current situation but Cabinet is united on our approach to this.”
There was a “set process” for the negotiations involving Brexit minister Lord Frost and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, he added.
On Monday night, Lord Frost reiterated a warning that the UK would achieve free trade within its borders “one way or the other”.
“When we discuss trade in this country, we must not forget that our most urgent and pressing problem – an issue of the highest national interest – is to make sure we can trade freely within our own country,” he told a conference held by the Centre for Policy Studies.
“I don’t think that’s too much to ask and that’s where we need to get to – one way or the other.”
Lord Frost argued Brexit will fail if it does not take a different approach from the EU.
“We can’t carry on as we were before. If, after Brexit, all we do is import the European social model, we will not succeed,” he said.
“If we stick to EU models, but behind our own tariff wall and with a smaller market, obviously we are not going to succeed.
“That’s why I so often talk about divergence. Not for the sake of it, but because it’s a national necessity.”
He also backed Chancellor Rishi Sunak to say that “our goal must be to reduce taxes”.
“It’s about light-touch, proportionate regulation whatever the policy objectives you’re trying to pursue. And, of course, free trade,” Lord Frost added.
The Tory peer has previously demanded “more ambition and more urgency” from the EU in efforts to resolve the dispute over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements.
Under the protocol, Northern Ireland effectively remains in the EU’s single market for goods.
This helps to avoid a hard border with Ireland but increases checks and barriers to trade on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain, making it a source of tension in Unionist communities.
Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesman Alistair Carmichael said: “This is yet more chaos and confusion from the Tories. Even our hard-Brexiteer Trade Secretary knows it would be madness to crash our trading relations with the EU just weeks before Christmas, and yet No 10 are refusing to rule it out.”
Meanwhile, the European Commission stepped up pressure on the UK over the fishing row with France.
The dispute is over the allocation of licences to fish in UK waters for vessels which can prove they have historically operated there.
Commission spokesman Tim McPhie said: “There’s been some progress with the outstanding licensing requests but the process is going too slowly.”
The Commission will request an “intensification of the process within a clear timeframe”, he added.
Downing Street insisted there would be no change to the process for deciding on licences, but applications would be reconsidered if fresh evidence is produced about a vessel’s track record.
“We are not negotiating on our position on fishing licences, there never has been any change to our approach which continues to be that if the requisite evidence is provided we will grant further licences,” the spokesman said.