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Little mention of protocol or trade war in Tory contest

A report has warned that the most pressing issue facing the new British prime minister will be the possibility of a trade war with the EU.

The warning was issued by the UK In A Changing Europe – an officially funded British research group – which pointed out that this would further disrupt trade for an economy already hit by inflation, debt and a cost-of-living crisis.

Yet the possibility of a trade war and the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol has not been raised as an issue in any of the Conservative leadership TV debates so far.

The reason is simple, and that is because it is not an issue for the Conservative Party voters. Many in the party believe they have won previous stand-offs over Brexit and that the EU will simply give way again.

During past negotiations, Conservative Brexiteer Andrew Bridgend MP talked about getting the EU to “come to heel”.

There is a general point about Britain’s image of itself in the world, about not backing down to foreign powers. And in particular there is a belief among many Conservative Party members such as the European Research Group (ERG) that views confrontation with Europe as part of the natural order of things rather than something to be avoided.

The ERG has up to 80 MPs – less than a quarter of the total – but they wield power that is a lot greater than their numbers. The ERG was described in the Financial Times as “the most influential [research group] in recent political history”.

They have an ideological attitude towards Brexit and the EU which will not be easily swayed by reference to economics. The group seems to regard any EU power over Northern Ireland as unacceptable.

They are matched in this by their allies, the DUP, who have contested initial economic data which showed Northern Ireland benefitting from the protocol.

The view from the Unionists against the NI Protocol

A recent report from the House of Lords into the effects of the protocol admitted it was too early to say with statistical proof what the overall economic effect has been.

Against this backdrop of hard held belief, no leadership candidate would want to be seen as ‘soft’ or unwilling to stand up to Europe.

Though believed to be a breach of international law, the Protocol Bill was voted through by Conservative MPs and no one was going to start attacking Liz Truss over it.

There were two Remain voting MPs who were leadership candidates – Tom Tugendhat and Jeremy Hunt.

They seem to have been the only candidates who were asked what they would do about the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill if they were prime minister.

They both said in one-to-one interviews that they would deliver it. Mr Tugendhat got particularly defensive and said he would battle for his country. He is a former soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he told Sky TV: “I have fought in combat for my country.”

However, underneath the rhetoric he was more nuanced and said that the bill could be used as “leverage” in negotiations and that he wanted a “clean start” in relations with the EU. Jeremy Hunt also said he wanted “new mood music with the EU”.

Also, it was reported that Rishi Sunak, one of the two remaining candidates, was opposed to the wording of the Protocol Bill when it was discussed at cabinet because it might lead to a trade war.

The Irish Government and EU officials are reportedly still hopeful that some deal can be reached with the new prime minister before things escalate.

One observer noted that Liz Truss might be the best one to negotiate such a deal as she had the backing of the ERG.

They pointed out that it was Richard Nixon – a right wing Republican rather than a Democrat – who was the first US President to visit China.

The EU believes there is a deal ready to go. Maybe a new prime minister would be willing to get the issue off their desk, especially if it could be billed as a victory for Britain and another defeat for Europe.

However, it is likely the ERG and DUP would still oppose any compromise.

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