Blog: UK may shelve controversial Brexit protocol bill in show of goodwill to EU – The Guardian

Ministers could shelve proposed legislation to allow the UK to unilaterally rip up some Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland as a sign of goodwill in negotiations with the EU, the Guardian has been told.

EU and UK negotiators are hopeful they may be able to enter the “tunnel” phase of negotiations next week. That phase, which involves intense negotiations with no public comment, is likely to be scheduled after a meeting between the UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič on Monday.

A senior EU source said there was an understanding the bill would not progress while the negotiations were at a crucial stage, though a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) source denied the law was being paused.

In a sign of some movement, the UK government said on Friday it would further delay calling an election in Northern Ireland to give Brexit talks a chance. But senior EU sources said only “slow progress” was being made, with both sides warning there were still significant differences.

Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson said on Friday: “It remains the case that there are outstanding issues that need to be agreed but it remains our ambition to try to reach an agreement as soon as we can.”

Both sides hailed an agreement last week over data sharing and EU access to British IT systems as a key step in resolving the row over the protocol. But there remain significant outstanding issues, particularly a UK demand that the European court of justice should have no role in disputes.

However, there is pressure on both sides for a deal to be reached by April in time for the commemorations of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement – which the US president, Joe Biden, hopes to attend. But Washington has made clear attendance is conditional on a settlement being reached.

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, challenged Sunak to stand up to the “Brexit purity cult” of Eurosceptics within the Conservative party to resolve the Northern Ireland protocol impasse in a speech in Belfast on Friday.

The protocol bill, which was the brainchild of Liz Truss when she was foreign secretary, would allow the UK to unilaterally override parts of the Brexit treaty. Discarding the bill would be a gesture of goodwill should the two sides get close to a deal on the protocol in the coming weeks.

The protocol bill is currently awaiting report stage in the House of Lords, where no work is currently taking place on it. It is not scheduled to come before peers for at least the next three weeks.

Two other senior sources said there had been discussions about the progress of the bill within government and that there were now doubts about whether it was legally sound.

Government sources have strongly denied the formal legal advice has been changed by the new attorney general Victoria Prentis, though others close to the negotiations said she had been reviewing the bill’s legality.

They said Prentis was not contradicting previous advice by Suella Braverman, the former attorney general, though conceded the preference was to resolve the situation through the current negotiations.

An AGO spokesperson said: “By longstanding Convention, reflected in the Ministerial code, whether the Law Officers have been asked to provide legal advice and the content of any advice is not disclosed outside government without their explicit consent. That consent is rarely given.”

A government legal source said that business would be conducted at all times with thorough and candid legal advice.

A significant number of international law experts have questioned Braverman’s initial legal advice, which said acting unilaterally was necessary because of the gravity of the situation in Northern Ireland.

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