Johnson hands Truss the poisoned fruit of the Northern Ireland Protocol

At the start of the Theresa May Mark One era – that’s to say, when Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were in charge – the Foreign Office lost charge of Europe policy.

Timothy didn’t trust this institutionally pro-Remain department, for which the European project had been a guiding mission for over half a century, to conduct the Brexit negotiation with the EU.

So David Davis was reinvented as Secretary of State in the new Department for Exiting the European Union, to be followed after his resignation by Dominic Raab, who soon quit himself, and then Stephen Barclay.

The Foreign Office lost out a second time round when David Frost took on responsibility for managing Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU – including the Northern Ireland Protocol.

One way of interpreting the appointment of Liz Truss to take on Frost’s former responsibilities is that the Foreign Office has got lucky third time round, as the legacy of Timothy’s restructuring is finally buried.

The change is certainly a shot in the arm for the boys and girls in King Charles Street – undeservedly, some would add, given Raffy Marshall’s recent discloures about its internal workings during this year’s Afghanistan crisis.

The loss of Europe policy was an existential agony for the Foreign Office, made worse by it getting overseas aid, which it didn’t want, but not gaining international trade, which some of its mandarians do want.

Regaining European policy in full will help raise spirits there, lowered recently not only by the Marshall revelations, but by news of a coming ten per cent cut in its budget.

Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs tend to have a low view of the Foreign Office and a high one of Frost.  They will greet the return of Europe policy to it with suspicion at best, hostility at worst.

Boris Johnson could have appointed a direct successor to Frost and kept Europe policy away from King Charles Street instead.

That he didn’t takes us to another view of the appointment.  That he is now weak, Truss is strong, she wanted European policy back at the Foreign Office…and has duly got her way.

We will find out soon enough how energetically she pushed for this outcome – if at all.  But whatever happened, let me offer a third angle from which to view the change.

The pro-Brexit right of the Parliamentary Party, broadly speaking, wants Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol moved soon.  In particular, they want the role that the Protocol grants to the European Court removed.

This swathe of Tory MPs includes much of the constituency that Truss must woo successfully in any forthcoming leadership election if she is to make it past the parliamentary stage of the contest.

She will therefore face a choice during the next few months, assuming that Johnson himself isn’t the victim of a confidence ballot.

To her right will be supporters of a “clean Brexit”, urging that Article 16 be moved as soon as possible.  To her left will be a band of former Remainers opposed to such a manoeuvre under almost any circumstances.

And while there aren’t necessarily many of them, there is a wider body of Tory MPs, mostly but not exclusively on the centre-left of the party, who will oppose her candidacy.

The future of the Protocol, of the UK’s relationship with the EU, and of Northern Ireland itself thus risk getting tangled up with Truss’s ambitions, and those who support and oppose them.

One further take on this mix is that, since Frost was a known factor in the province and Truss isn’t, the Executive is nearer collapse this evening than it was yesterday.

In particular, the DUP knew where it was with Frost – or thought it did, anyway.  It may not have the same confidence in Truss, however unreasonable that prejudice may be.

(Furthermore, it’s worth bearing in mind Dominic Cummings’ claim that this Government will bungle any attempt to move Article 16 – so it’s better not done now.)

All this is consistent less with a powerful Truss regaining Europe policy for her department than with a resourceful Johnson handing her a poisoned fruit.

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