The UK’s opposition Labour party used a leaked government document to accuse Prime Minister Boris Johnson of lying about new customs checks between Northern Ireland and Britain after Brexit, as politicians traded blows ahead of the final head-to-head leaders’ debate on Friday (6 December).
The confidential government document, ‘Northern Ireland Protocol: Unfettered Access to the UK Internal Market’, was revealed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at a press conference in central London on Friday morning.
The 15-page document prepared by the Treasury, which has acknowledged that it is genuine, warns that “at minimum, exit summary declarations will be required when goods are exported from Northern Ireland to Great Britain in order to meet EU obligations”.
It added that “the withdrawal agreement has the potential to separate Northern Ireland in practice from whole swathes of the UK’s internal market”.
“This drives a coach and horses through Boris Johnson’s claim that there will be no border in the Irish Sea,” Corbyn said at the press conference.
With less than a week to go until the general election on 12 December, Johnson’s Conservatives hold an 8-10 point lead that puts them on course for a narrow majority.
However, the Democratic Unionist Party, the leading party in Northern Ireland, which propped up the outgoing Tory government but opposes the Brexit deal, is set to lose three of its eleven seats in the House of Commons.
Replacing the so-called Irish ‘backstop’ with a new regulatory border between Britain and Northern Ireland for four years was the main change in the Brexit deal secured by Johnson in October compared to Theresa May’s deal. It was also a key sticking point throughout the Brexit negotiations.
The new protocol agreed by the UK and EU would require some new customs checks on the island of Ireland, and for Northern Ireland to leave the EU’s customs union and come out of the single market in all goods, apart from agri-food products and industrial products.
In 2025, the Northern Ireland government and elected assembly would then choose whether to keep the new arrangement, which Johnson described as “a process of renewable democratic consent by the executive and assembly of Northern Ireland”.
But Johnson and his ministers have appeared confused on whether the new Irish regime would create new customs checks on goods coming across the Irish Sea.
Johnson has repeatedly stated that there will be no new checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Britain, telling businesses in Ulster that they would “absolutely not” be required to make any customs declarations and should ignore any such paperwork.
That appeared to contradict evidence given by Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay to MPs in October, that “exit summary declarations will be required in terms of NI to GB.”
Questioned on the leaked document, Johnson repeated that voters should “believe exactly what I say, which is that there will be no checks on goods going between GB to NI, or NI to GB, because we are going to come out of the EU whole and entire.”
Meanwhile, the Johnson government attacked Labour’s plans to allow EU citizens to vote in a second Brexit referendum – if ever there is one – as “an assault” on democracy.