The protocol is written into the Withdrawal Agreement signed by both sides in December and requires checks to be made on goods passing between the UK and Northern Ireland. However, it has emerged that officials in Taskforce Europe, headed by the UK’s chief Brussels negotiator, David Frost, are working on ways to remove the need for those checks. This may require new legal advice from the attorney-general’s office.
Last week, Suella Braverman replaced Geoffrey Cox as attorney-general in Mr Johnson’s first major cabinet shuffle since the election in December.
Insiders claim that she was appointed because Mr Cox was not willing to challenge the terms of the protocol.
A senior source told The Times: “There is deadly serious internal work going on about not obeying the Northern Ireland protocol.
“Taskforce Europe are looking into that. That’s why they had Suella put in there.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Cabinet
Under the existing terms of the protocol, the whole of the UK will leave the EU customs union.
This will enable Britain to conclude trade deals with other countries in the future.
Legally there will be a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
However, to avoid a so-called hard border, actual checks will be on what is effectively a customs border between Great Britain and the island of Ireland, with goods being checked at “points of entry” into Northern Ireland.
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Ursula von der Leyen/Michel Barnier
The UK’s chief EU negotiator will later this week spell out to Brussels the UK’s demands for a trade deal, insisting on the same rights as Canada.
Number 10 has warned Brussels that if it refuses to cooperate, then the UK will seek to claw back money from the EU divorce bill.
This will put further pressure on European leaders, who are currently trying to plug the £62 billion hole in the budget, caused by Britain’s departure from the bloc.
It comes as the Prime Minister seeks to kick start trade talks with the US, in an attempt to gain further leverage over Brussels.
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French President Emmanuel Macron
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Amid growing frustration at EU’s “time wasting”, the Prime Minister will next week publish his “red lines” for US trade negotiations.
He is expected to oppose White House demands for greater access to the UK’s market for US drug and health firms.
However, number 10 appears ready to make some concessions over food and agricultural standards, particularly over the thorny issue of chemically treated chicken.
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On Sunday, George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, said while there were “no plans” to allow the import of chlorinated chicken, he was prepared to consider the case of poultry washed in lactic acid.
He said: “There is room for a sensible discussion here [with the US] because we also use lactic acids for some species, notably on beef though not poultry.”
Downing Street hopes that its decision to push on with US trade negotiations will concentrate minds in Brussels, where EU leaders appear to be dragging their feet over trade talks.
The Government is determined to reach a deal by the end of the year and has ruled out extending the transition period.
However, French President Emmanuel Macron cast doubts on the likelihood of any deal being concluded by December 31 on Saturday.
“I am not sure that an agreement will be reached between now and the end of the year,” Mr Macron said at a meeting with fishermen.
“Anyway, it is going to become more tense because (the British) are very hard,” he said, adding that fishing rights would be a key point of contention.”