Reneging on any obligations under the Brexit withdrawal agreement would make the case for breaking up the UK stronger, the government has been warned, as a minister defended the plan as simply addressing “a few minor loose ends”.
After it emerged Boris Johnson is drawing up legislation that will override the Brexit withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland, threatening the collapse of talks with the EU, the SNP said leaving without a deal would cause “lasting damage to Scottish jobs and the economy in the middle of a pandemic”.
Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader, said “By threatening to undermine the UK’s international treaty obligations and impose a catastrophic no-deal Brexit on Scotland against our will, the prime minister is proving he cannot be trusted and is underlining the need for Scotland to become an independent country.”
Johnson is to put an ultimatum to negotiators this week, saying the UK and Europe must agree a post-Brexit trade deal by 15 October or Britain will walk away for good.
Ahead of his comments, the Financial Times reported that the UK could row back parts of the UK’s agreement with the EU on state aid and customs arrangements for Northern Ireland.
It is understood the UK government believes the original protocol is drafted ambiguously enough to allow for a change of interpretation, something likely to be bitterly disputed in Brussels.
A UK government source told the Guardian the plan was part of the preparation for a no-deal exit that would present a number of new barriers to trade from Northern Ireland.
Eustice confirmed that any changes to the withdrawal agreement, hailed by Johnson before December’s general election as forming an “oven-ready” deal with the EU, would be connected to trade between businesses in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
He told Sky News that while it was accepted that “some checks on some goods” would be needed, for example for agri-foods, some areas were not pinned down by the withdrawal agreement.
“The point about all this is, there’s been this conundrum about the negotiations on leaving the European Union around how we handle that very special relationship with Ireland,” he said.
“The news this morning can exaggerate certain things. The point is that the Northern Ireland protocol is agreed, we’re working with that in good faith. But it was always recognised there were a few minor technical issues that still needed to be resolved through a joint committee process.
Where there are legal ambiguities at the end of that, on things like exit declarations and things like that, we need to provide businesses with the certainty they need.”
However, the idea of the UK government seeking to rewrite an international agreement it signed up to only months ago is likely to be seen in a very different light by others.
Labour said the prime minister was “threatening to renege on the UK’s legal obligations” and called it “an act of immense bad faith: one that would be viewed dimly by future trading partners and allies around the world”.
The news was condemned by Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, Simon Coveney, who helped broker the original Brexit settlement. He said any change would be “very unwise”.
On Monday, the prime minister will set a firm deadline of 15 October – the date of the European council – for a deal to be signed, with the mood bleak as formal talks resume this week between the UK’s lead negotiator, David Frost, and the EU’s Michel Barnier.
If no agreement is reached before the deadline, the UK will “move on” and accept that a deal cannot be struck, Johnson will say, adding that no deal would be a “good outcome”.
The prime minister will strike a belligerent tone, suggesting there will be no movement from the deadline and claiming the UK is ready to trade on World Trade Organization terms from January.
“There is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point,” he will say. “If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on.”
Johnson and his allies have repeatedly said they did not believe earlier negotiations made the threat of no deal tangible enough.