UK failed to secure the Brexit deal it wanted for Northern Ireland, David Frost admits

‘We expected there would be a trusted trader scheme, an equivalence mechanism....none of that we’ve got’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 20 May 2021 14:15 BST
Boris Johnson makes Northern Ireland trade pledge as he highlights Brexit deal

The UK failed to secure the Brexit agreement it wanted for Northern Ireland, its negotiator has admitted – despite Boris Johnson hailing it as “a great deal” at the time.

In extraordinary comments, David Frost conceded that hopes that the agreement would protect smooth trade had been dashed, blaming the pressure the government was under in late 2019.

“We expected to be able to get some facilitations that we didn’t get. We expected there would be a trusted trader scheme, for example,” Lord Frost said.

“We expected, like every other free trade agreement, there’d be an equivalence mechanism in there. None of that we’ve got.”

Yet, in November 2019 – after the Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed – the prime minister celebrated it, saying: “Northern Ireland has got a great deal.

“You keep free movement, you keep access to the single market and, as it says in the deal, unfettered access to the UK.”

Mr Johnson has since been repeatedly criticised for falsely claiming the agreement would not require costly and burdensome checks on trade across the Irish Sea.

In January, there were empty shelves in supermarkets and – although that crisis eased – the government shelved full inspections to avoid a repeat, triggering a legal action by the EU.

Loyalists have threatened violence unless the Protocol is ripped up and Lord Frost warned the height of the marching season, in July, is a deadline for avoiding further unrest.

In an interview for The Spectator magazine, Mr Johnson’s handpicked negotiator blamed the duress of striking the deal while Parliament was gridlocked and MPs manoeuvred to block a no-deal Brexit.

“We signed it in conditions, obviously, as you remember, where we had the Benn-Burt Act and the requirement to get a deal before we could deliver on the referendum result,” he said.

The Protocol, and the wider withdrawal agreement, was also hailed as “oven-ready” by the prime minister – although it did nothing to settle the terms of future trade.

Naomi Smith, chief executive of the Best for Britain campaign group, said the comments showed “the spin around Boris’ ‘great deal’ has completely unraveled”.

“Ministers are so relaxed about admitting their deception, it tells us all we need to know about their disdain for the electorate, not to mention the small businesses suffering the consequences,” she said.

In the interview, Lord Frost made clear the UK will not agree to align its food rules with the EU, suggested as the solution to removing the vast bulk of cross-sea checks.

He is instead seeking the “equivalence” agreement – where the two sides respect each other’s rules – but Brussels has suggested it will reject that.

In hardline comments, Lord Frost said: “I don’t understand why a third country would do a deal with a country that didn’t control its own agri-food rules, since that is so central to what’s important in trade deals nowadays.”

And, revealing the poor state of the negotiations with the EU, he added: “They’ve been so reluctant to have the discussion in the first place.”

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