No 10 willing to break international law to protect British steel, Boris Johnson suggests

·2 min read
Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie attend the first day of the G7 summit near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in Germany, on Sunday - Sean Gallup//Getty Images
Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie attend the first day of the G7 summit near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in Germany, on Sunday - Sean Gallup//Getty Images

Boris Johnson has suggested he is willing to break international law to protect the British steel industry after his ethics adviser resigned over the issue and said it would amount to a “deliberate” breach of the ministerial code.

The Prime Minister on Sunday said it was reasonable for UK steel to enjoy the “same protections” as European equivalents even if it breaches trade obligations.

He is expected to announce that existing tariffs on Chinese steel will be maintained and new barriers extended to imports from other countries in what could amount to a breach of the UK’s obligations to the World Trade Organisation.

Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said no final decisions had been taken and the Government was trying to “balance our international obligations and the national interest”.

Ministers are concerned that a global glut of steel has made its price “artificially low”, threatening the viability of UK producers.

Steel industry ‘going through a difficult time’

Lord Geidt, Mr Johnson’s ethics adviser, resigned earlier this month over Mr Johnson’s “openness” to breaking international law, which he viewed as a “deliberate and purposeful” breach of the ministerial code.

Last June, the Trade Remedies Authority (TRA) recommended that the UK cut its tariffs on foreign steel in half because there was no “legal basis” for extending them.

Asked about reports that he was prepared to break WTO rules by imposing sweeping new steel tariffs, Mr Johnson told reporters at the G7 summit in Germany that the UK’s steel industry had been “going through a difficult time” because of rising energy prices.

“We have a system in the UK where we don’t privilege our industry in the way that some other countries do,” he said. "They pay a very high price for energy, we need to fix that.

“We need British steel to be provided with much cheaper energy and cheap electricity for its blast furnaces. But until we can fix that, I think it is reasonable for UK steel to have the same protections that other European, absolutely every other European steel economy does.”

Labour would back continuation of tariffs

Mr Johnson said his ultimate aim would be to “take off those tariffs” and find “another solution”, but added: “The difficulty is, is that possible to do while staying within our WTO, our World Trade Organisation obligations? That’s the problem. But these are tough choices that you have to make.”

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said ministers would aim to “work within international law”.

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, said Labour would support the continuation of tariffs.

“We would support him, steel workers support him, the unions support him, industry supports him. Labour does support him,” he said.