WHEN it comes to making a bad situation worse, the Johnson administration has clocked up quite the track record.

It would be easy to become inured to this pattern, and for developments along these lines and their negative consequences to start to wash over people.

However, we ignore at our peril the potential dangers of the UK Government’s sabre-rattling around the possibility of suspending key parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol by triggering Article 16 of this accord as it tries to negotiate changes to these post-Brexit arrangements with the European Union. Any such triggering could be hugely detrimental to businesses, households, the economy, and living standards.

The response from the EU side has been understandable and predictable, and could surely have been anticipated by the Johnson administration, with a clear hint having emerged that the bloc could set aside the entire post-Brexit trade deal struck last December if the Northern Ireland Protocol is suspended.

We must also bear in mind that the protocol was something the UK Government agreed to, after deciding it was leaving the European single market and customs union, no matter what, in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, told broadcaster RTE on Sunday: “The Trade and Cooperation Agreement that was agreed between the British Government and the EU was contingent on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the protocol.

“One is contingent on the other and so if one has been set aside there is a danger that the other will also be set aside by the EU.”

If the setting aside of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which would be a protracted process, were to come to pass, this would obviously be calamitous for exporters. It would also pose a further major threat to investment in the UK and pile chaos upon the prevailing shambles on so many fronts.

Yet Brexit minister Lord David Frost declared last week that “Article 16 is very much on the table”.

UK businesses and households are already paying a huge price for the Johnson administration’s hard Brexit, with the loss of frictionless trade and free movement of people, so just imagine what things would be like if the Trade and Cooperation Agreement were set aside. It does not really bear thinking about.

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Even if things do not get to that stage, and it must obviously be hoped they do not, what about the hugely corrosive effect of uncertainty?

Much damage was done by uncertainty to the UK economy over the years following the 2016 Brexit vote, even before the country actually left the EU and then the single market.

The last thing UK businesses and households need right now is further uncertainty being piled upon them as a result of the behaviour of the Johnson administration.

Boris Johnson and Lord Frost should contemplate, among many other things, what overseas investors in the UK and those which might be looking to set up operations in the country will think about further instability and the danger of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement being set aside.

They should also heed former prime minister Sir John Major’s comments over the weekend on the Northern Ireland Protocol issue.

Sir John said triggering Article 16 and suspending parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol would be “colossally stupid”.

He added that to suspend parts of the protocol “would be absurd”.

Sir John told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that, if the UK Government did this, “it would be seen as very bad faith indeed, it would be seen as irresponsible”.

He added: “It would add to destabilisation in Northern Ireland, it would seriously damage relationships across the whole of Ireland north and south and the UK, it would erode relationships between Europe and the UK, it would damage relationships between Washington and London.”

These relationships are crucial on so many fronts, and good faith on the international stage is vital.

Sir John also declared the UK was negotiating over the protocol “with all the subtlety of a brick”.

The Northern Ireland Protocol in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement was formulated painstakingly to avoid the re-emergence of a hard border on the island of Ireland, and creates a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland, to avoid checks and controls on the island, is required to apply EU customs rules and align with a list of single-market regulations.

The Institute for Government think-tank is among those to have highlighted signals from the UK Government that Article 16 could be triggered. This article allows either the UK or EU to undertake unilateral safeguarding measures if the protocol leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”.

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Any actions taken must be “restricted with regard to their scope and duration” and must only address the issues explicitly identified, the Institute for Government has noted, with Article 16 not intended to allow either party to suspend provisions of the protocol permanently or in their entirety.

It remains to be seen what the UK Government will do regarding Article 16.

The Johnson administration and Lord Frost look keen to battle the EU head on once again. We should not be at all surprised by this, given their dismal track record throughout the Brexit negotiations and crucially also given that such behaviour seems to make them popular with large parts of the electorate.

Furthermore, the UK Government has shown, as demonstrated by its chosen hard Brexit, that it will take steps which will cause huge damage to the country’s economy, if such moves suit its ideological aims.

What is not clear in the context of the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations and the threat of using Article 16 is just how serious the Johnson administration is about taking action that would take our already much weakened relations with the world’s largest free trade bloc to a whole new level.

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There will almost certainly be a bit of ham-fisted negotiating tactics here but there also seems to be a very real danger that the Johnson administration could take dramatic action which would lead the UK down a very worrying path indeed. Much is at stake here. Obviously, stability on the island of Ireland is of paramount importance.

From an economic perspective, even if the Conservative Government heeds the sensible voices of the likes of Sir John Major and steps back from the brink in terms of the threat to trigger Article 16, the uncertainty created by the latest developments is absolutely not what the UK needs right now.

Going back to the deliberations of existing and potential overseas investors, a stable operating environment is key.

In the context of the Northern Ireland Protocol row, there is obviously extremely heightened short-term uncertainty, However, the situation also demonstrates the potential for massive uncertainty, possibly coming in waves or with little warning, over the long term.

The UK has already become a far less attractive place for overseas investors with the country’s exit from the single market, and the loss of frictionless trade and free movement.

However, just when many might have thought it could not get any worse on this front, along come Messrs Johnson and Frost to show just how bad things might become.