Boris Johnson’s attorney general has received legal advice that it would be lawful to tear up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The government’s chief law officer Suella Braverman is said to have approved the scrapping of swathes of the agreement, giving the PM legal cover to make the move – despite White House and EU warnings against unilateral action.
Ms Braverman has advised that legislation to ditch protocol checks on goods would be legally sound because of the “disproportionate and unreasonable” way it has been implemented, according to The Times and the BBC.
The attorney general has submitted evidence accusing the EU of undermining the Good Friday Agreement by creating a trade barrier in the Irish Sea, and warned of “societal unrest” in Northern Ireland.
It comes as foreign secretary Liz Truss is set to hold crunch talks with European Commission counterpart Maros Sefcovic, as ministers consider whether to override the post-Brexit deal with new legislation.
Ms Truss, expected to tell Mr Sefcovic in a call on Thursday morning that the dispute cannot drag on, has warned she would “not shy away” from taking action. She accused the EU of proposing ideas that would “take us backwards”.
But sources in Brussels have warned that unilateral action by the UK could spark a trade war, with the possibility that the EU could suspend the trade deal agreed in 2020.
Mr Johnson argued that the Good Friday Agreement was more important than the Northern Ireland Protocol – as the idea of possible response from the EU to impose trade sanction on the UK as “crazy”.
He said there was no need for “drama” from the EU as he doubled down on the idea of overriding elements of the deal unilaterally.
But Mr Johnson told BBC News on Wednesday: “Let’s face it, we’re talking about really, in the scheme of things, a very, very small part of the whole European economy … It is crazy. I didn’t think there’s any need for drama. This is something that just needs to be fixed.”
However, there is said to be a rift in the cabinet over the move, with Ms Truss, Ms Braverman and Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg reportedly in favour, while chancellor Rishi Sunak is concerned about the impact on the economy.
Speaking to ITV’s Peston programme, Mr Rees-Mogg said the UK would not involve itself in any trade war with the EU. “Tit-for-tat retaliation of that kind is the economics of the school ground and it would damage British consumers at a time of rising (prices),” he said.
Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns said on Wednesday evening that the UK Government would have to take unilateral action over the protocol if it could not resolve issues with the EU.
“If the EU are saying to us that…. then we will have to take actions to prioritise stability in Northern Ireland, powersharing in Northern Ireland, to protect the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, and that will mean intervention unilaterally, yes.”
German chancellor Olaf Scholz has warned: “No-one should unilaterally cancel, break or in any way attack the settlement.”
The White House stressed the need for talks to continue to resolve the issues, with a spokesman saying: “We urge the parties to continue engaging in dialogue to resolve differences and bring negotiations to a successful conclusion.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated his call for the government to take action, saying: “The UK government is well within its rights to act in these circumstances.”
Officials working for Ms Truss are drawing up draft legislation to unilaterally remove the need for checks on all goods being sent from Britain for use in Northern Ireland.
The proposed law would allow businesses in Northern Ireland to disregard EU rules and regulations and remove the power of the European Court of Justice to rule on issues relating to the region.
Crucially, it would in parts override the protocol agreed by Mr Johnson in 2019 and mean the UK had breached its obligations under the Brexit agreement.