No10 left furious at ex-Tory Prime Minister Sir John Major after taunt

No10 is left furious at ex-Tory Prime Minister Sir John Major after his ‘we are the masters’ taunt at Boris Johnson

  • Said plan to trigger Article 16 in row over Northern Ireland Protocol was ‘stupid’
  • Also said Ministers had broken the terms of the Brexit agreement with the EU
  • Sir John criticised Government’s handling of the Owen Paterson lobbying row

Sir John Major faced the Government’s wrath last night after he accused Boris Johnson’s administration of taking a ‘we are the masters now’ approach.

The former Conservative Prime Minister yesterday said plans to trigger Article 16 in the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol were ‘colossally stupid’ and that Ministers had broken the terms of the Brexit agreement with the EU.

Under the protocol, customs and food safety checks are made on goods going into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. 

Triggering Article 16 would unilaterally suspend parts of the agreement.

Sir John Major faced the Government’s wrath last night after he accused Boris Johnson’s administration of taking a ‘we are the masters now’ approach

A Government source told The Mail on Sunday that Sir John was trying to ‘settle scores over Brexit’, which he opposed, and that he had a ‘fundamental misunderstanding’ of the protocol.

Sir John yesterday also heavily criticised the Government’s handling of the lobbying row involving Tory MP Owen Paterson.

He told the Today programme on Radio 4 that the Government’s actions in the Commons last week were ‘shameful’ and Mr Johnson’s administration was damaging the UK’s reputation overseas and treating Parliament ‘with contempt’.

The former Conservative Prime Minister yesterday said plans to trigger Article 16 in the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol were ‘colossally stupid’ and that Ministers had broken the terms of the Brexit agreement with the EU

Mr Johnson last week made a humiliating U-turn after attempting to rewrite Commons standards rules and prevent Mr Paterson being suspended for 30 days over breaching lobbying rules.

Sir John, whose Government was mired in sleaze scandals, said: ‘The striking difference is this. In the 1990s I set up a committee to tackle this sort of behaviour. Over the past few days we have seen today’s Government trying to defend this sort of behaviour.’

He added that ‘there is a general whiff of “we are the masters now” about their behaviour’ and accused Mr Johnson’s administration of being ‘un-Conservative’ – including over Brexit. 

‘This Government has done a number of things that have concerned me deeply,’ he said. 

‘They have broken the law, [with] the prorogation of Parliament. They have broken treaties – I have in mind the Northern Ireland Protocol. They have broken their word on many occasions.’

But former Brexit Secretary David Davis criticised ‘intrinsic Remainers’ such as Sir John for attacking the UK’s negotiating strategy while at the same time failing to criticise France for ‘clearly trying to make life difficult’.

This was a reference to French Prime Minister Jean Castex’s letter urging the EU last week to use the fishing row to show there was ‘more damage to leaving the EU than remaining there’.

Last night, a Government source said: ‘The comments from John Major suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Article 16 is a safeguard within the treaty to be used by either side in the event that the protocol causes serious difficulties in real life.

‘Given the significant disruption the protocol is causing in Northern Ireland we would be within our rights to use this safeguard. It would not be breaking any treaty.

‘It’s difficult to avoid thinking that John Major is simply trying to settle scores over Brexit.’

The source also said Sir John ‘seems to have forgotten’ that the EU had invoked Article 16 at the start of this year during the row over the supply of Covid vaccines. The source said this had ‘significantly undermined cross-community confidence in the protocol in Northern Ireland’.

Mr Davis said of Sir John’s comments about Article 16: ‘To accuse us of considering it as somehow misbehaving is frankly very odd. It’s all very well for people who are intrinsically Remainers to attack the negotiating strategy when EU countries like France are clearly trying to make life difficult.’

Under the protocol, customs and food safety checks are made on goods going into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK

He said Article 16 ‘was put there for unforeseen circumstances arising. And at the moment we are heading towards exactly that – a position that is untenable for Northern Ireland businesses. It is entirely proper to consider applying it.

‘This would be more credible if John Major had criticised the EU when they threatened to use it in a manner that was not appropriate – over vaccines. That was, bluntly, a vindictive use.’

This week, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic will travel to London to continue talks. On Friday he warned that triggering Article 16 ‘would have serious consequences’. 

Downing Street has repeatedly rejected EU claims that the UK was about to trigger Article 16 imminently and said it preferred settling their differences through negotiation. However, the UK is prepared to use the mechanism if a solution cannot be reached.

Sir John yesterday also heavily criticised the Government’s handling of the lobbying row involving Tory MP Owen Paterson

After three weeks of intensive negotiations, talks have stalled, with the UK side saying the EU has not made enough concessions.

Sticking points include discussions over cutting the amount of customs checks, red tape around medicines and the movement of pets between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

A Government source said: ‘We’ve always said that we’ll use Article 16 if solutions can’t be found. But people need to understand that we’re taking these talks seriously and we mean it when we say that we want a negotiated outcome.’

The source said the EU’s proposals so far ‘don’t deliver what they say on the tin. The number of checks and processes would still be unacceptably high, contrary to what the Commission said when they first announced them’.

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