Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker has apologised to the EU and Republic of Ireland for his past hard-line stance on Brexit as the government seeks to reboot negotiations over the implementation of the NI Protocol.
Speaking at the Conservative Party conference yesterday (2 October), the former chair of the Brexit-backing European Research Group (ERG) said it was time to rebuild relations with Ireland and become “closest partners and friends”.
Baker said he and colleagues had acted with “ferocious determination to get the UK out of the EU” and had not shown respect to the “legitimate interests” of Ireland or the EU during the campaign to leave the bloc, the Guardian reports.
'Humility and resolve'
It was now time “to bring some humility to this situation”, he added.
“And it’s with humility that I want to accept and acknowledge that I and others did not always behave in a way which encouraged Ireland and the European Union to trust us to accept that they have legitimate interests, legitimate interests that we’re willing to respect, because they do and we are willing to respect them,” he told the conference.
However, Baker added that the British government is resolved to make progress on the Protocol, which he criticised, RTE reports.
The government could still override elements of the post-Brexit trading arrangement if it goes ahead with the NI Protocol Bill, which is currently in the Lords.
“It is not acceptable that Northern Ireland is so separate from Great Britain right now under the protocol, the protocol which at the moment is only partially implemented,” he said.
Prime minister Liz Truss told ITV that while Baker was speaking personally in apologising for his former “ferocious” stance on negotiations with the EU, “he speaks for the whole government in that we absolutely want to find a negotiated solution to deal with the issues of the Northern Ireland Protocol and work with our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland”.
The change in tone echoed across government with foreign secretary James Cleverly holding a videocall with European Commission vice president and Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic on Friday – the first EU-UK talks on the protocol talks since February.
Afterwards, Cleverly tweeted that both sides “agreed we want to look for solutions to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement” and would speak again soon, reports the BBC.
In response to a question from RTE journalist Tony Connelly, a commission spokesman said the EU was "committed to finding joint solutions" and confirmed there would be technical level discussions "this week".
Change of tone
Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, another former chair of the ERG, added to the change of tone, reports Reuters.
He told the Tory conference that he understood “the complications and maybe we could have understood them a bit better, sooner. But now the mood music certainly seems to be changing and I very much hope that we get some solutions”.
Heaton-Harris added that the Protocol had complicated trade between Northern Ireland and Britain and needed to be renegotiated so that unionists would rejoin the devolved Stormont executive.
Kwarteng backs down
In another change of tack today, the chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng reversed his decision on cutting the top 45% rate of income tax, saying it had become a “diversion” from the government’s plan for growth, reports Sky.
He said: “We get it, we have listened.”
Gilt prices and sterling rose on the chancellor’s U-turn, while stocks slid on early trading, reports the FT.