EU’s hallucinatory Northern Ireland episode leaves chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster teetering on moral high ground

After years of division, who would have guessed that it would take the European commission to unite the entire House of Commons not to mention the whole of Ireland over Europe? Last Friday, the EU had what can only be described as a hallucinatory episode when it imagined that vaccine manufacturers were planning to start a major drug racketeering scam by smuggling their jabs across the border from the Republic into Northern Ireland and promptly invoked article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol. If only for a short while, as within hours that decision had been rescinded.
Trust has been eroded, said Michael Gove, in answer to an urgent question from the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Louise Haigh. Its quite something when the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has the moral high ground on matters of trust, but it was a measure of just how extreme the EUs actions had been that no one thought to challenge Gove on his own track record of duplicity. Rather there was a general agreement from MPs of all parties that the EU had been totally out of order to unilaterally invoke article 16 before all other options had been explored.
The EU had made a serious mistake, Haigh agreed, and now was the time for calm heads. Peace in Northern Ireland had been hard-won and was too important to be used as a political football. Several MPs who had been using Northern Ireland as a political football for years nodded their heads in agreement: the protocol must never again be undermined in this way.
This was Gove slightly out of his element. Normally theres nothing he likes more than telling people usually with confected, passive-aggressive sincerity how right they are to be on the same side of the argument as himself. Especially when they arent. But now he found himself obliged to be somewhat more genuine, as time and again he found himself praising MPs both Europhiles and Eurosceptics for their wisdom and foresight in seeing things from his point of view, while expressing his own regrets at the threats made against border control officers in Larne and Belfast.
In the end, all this honest agreement rather got to Gove and he wound up saying rather more than he intended. Boris Johnson has always maintained that any difficulties with the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK had only ever been teething problems; but Gove suggested the problems were rather more intrinsic and there were issues that had been overlooked in everyones haste to get a deal signed off in such a short time frame.
Gove even indicated that some grace periods would need to be extended: something the Northern Ireland minister, Brandon Lewis, had previously said was unthinkable. All of this was soluble, he insisted. Just leave it with him and his EU counterpart, Maro efovi, to work out. That didnt sound wholly convincing the EU triggering article 16 less than a month after the end of the transition period didnt bode well for the future of the protocol but no one had any better ideas so Gove was by and large left unchallenged.
As was Matt Hancock who came to the chamber to give a coronavirus update that was pretty much a repeat of the No 10 press conference he had given the day before. I guess he wanted to make the most of 2 February being Groundhog Day. The vaccination programme was on schedule with 9.2 million jabs having been administered and urgent action was being taken to track down the contacts of the 11 cases of the South African variant that had been passed on through community transmission.
Not that the shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, and others didnt try to pin Hancock down on matters of detail. Such as whether Sage had recommended a more aggressive hotel quarantine policy and when the South African variant was first identified. Rather it felt as if no one was in the mood for political point scoring right now; as if even most MPs needed a break from reminding the government of how its mishandling of the pandemic over the past year had caused so many, many unnecessary deaths.
Maybe also there was a touch of fear in the chamber. That Covid-19 was a trickier disease than had been first thought and the vaccine might not be the get-out-of-jail card everyone hoped. These anxieties were largely kept contained though and there was more the sense that everyone was waiting for something to happen. Only they didnt quite know what that something was. Then nobody does. Not even Hancock. Especially Matt Hancock.