Jacob Rees-Mogg, Britain's Brexit Opportunities minister, made the startling announcement last Wednesday that the UK had only signed the Northern Ireland Protocol on the basis that it would be reformed.

"A lot of commentary says, well, we signed it and therefore surely we should accept it lock, stock and barrel. That's absolute nonsense," he told MPs on the European Scrutiny Committee.

"We signed it on the basis that it would be reformed and there comes a point at which you say, well, [the EU] haven't reformed it and therefore we are reforming it ourselves.

"The United Kingdom is much more important than any agreement that we have with any foreign power."

When pressed, Rees-Mogg would not elaborate on what "reforming it ourselves" would look like. However, the Financial Times on Thursday evening reported that it would involve a new bill to give ministers sweeping powers to scrap parts of the Protocol.

The Protocol is part of an international treaty which the UK has embedded in British domestic law. Ministers cannot overturn it (or parts of it) without breaching that law.

Jacob Rees-Mogg said UK signed NI Protocol on the basis it would be reformed

Because London has shied away from triggering Article 16, Downing Street looks to be going another route.

It is understood lawyers have completed draft legislation that may go as far as repealing Section 7a of the EU Withdrawal Act, the legislation which enshrines the Protocol into British domestic law.

That draft legislation has yet to be given political approval by Boris Johnson.

On a visit to India yesterday, he conceded that legislation could be part of a new approach to the Protocol, which he said would involve "some very simple and reasonable steps…we will continue to talk to the EU. We don’t rule out taking further steps if that is necessary."

If Section 7a were repealed, then British ministers would, in theory, be free to start disapplying the parts of the Protocol they have always disliked, such as checks on goods destined for Northern Ireland, because there would be no risk of a court challenge.

British officials have not been slow to raise the prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister in the North.

However, the bar would be high.

Such a move would be a clear breach of the Brexit withdrawal treaty, since it requires both sides to enshrine its provisions into their own legal systems.

The British House of Lords would almost certainly reject such a bill; if it doesn't falter immediately, its passage could run all the way up to the next election.

So, why would Johnson take such a risk now?

On paper it would win him badly needed backbench and Eurosceptic support, at a time when 'Partygate' is once again corroding his authority. The EU and the Biden Administration are, meanwhile, both transfixed by the war in Ukraine.

The British House of Lords would almost certainly reject a repeal of Section 7a

"You have got some [Tory Party] voices basically saying very cynically, look, Ukraine has [given us] a chance to kind of push our luck here. It's a constraint on how far the EU will react," says one source familiar with Downing Street thinking.

By constantly threatening Article 16, but never triggering it, Johnson would now have an alternative. It might not look radical from the outside (as noted, he has talked of "very simple and reasonable steps"), but it would show the European Research Group (ERG) that he has finally taken action.

The results of the Stormont Assembly elections on 5 May would give Johnson the perfect pretext. The election of a Sinn Féin First Minister, followed by the DUP withdrawing from the assembly and executive, would create a constitutional crisis.

Johnson could then use a new bill in the Queen’s speech - four days after the first results come out - to say that in these circumstances, the Protocol cannot continue so therefore here are the laws to give effect to that.

Polling, both official and unofficial, suggests that the Protocol is not the burning issue for voters ahead of the elections.

Even if the bill never becomes law, goes the thinking, it would create the impression of tough action. In the face of this tough action, the EU would back down and move much further in the technical talks to reduce the burden of the Protocol on businesses in Northern Ireland.

Of course, the election could well deliver a pro-Protocol majority of MLAs. British officials privately say that a simple majority has never worked in Northern Ireland, but such a result would undermine the argument that the Protocol is fundamentally unpopular.

Undoubtedly, it is causing grave problems for some businesses and its impact on Unionist identity is real.

London believes that a new generation of unionists is now much more exercised about the identity issue, and that some in the loyalist community are adamant that the Irish Sea border should go, and that full checks and controls be shoved onto the land border.

Some loyalists want full checks and controls on the land border

British officials have not been slow to raise the prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister in the North, and a Sinn Féin-led government in the South, as another reason to placate unionism.

Polling, both official and unofficial, suggests that the Protocol is not the burning issue for voters ahead of the elections. They are much more concerned about the health service and the cost of living.

London, however, is sticking to its view that until the Protocol commands the broad support of both communities, then a breach with the EU is a price worth paying.

Officials say the European Commission proposals, published last October, on reducing customs formalities and the number and nature of checks on agrifood products, simply don't go far enough, and that Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s chief negotiator, needs a new mandate from member states to go further.

If the Commission doesn't go further, and national capitals do not provide a new mandate, then London will not sign up to any new deal. That is "a fairly difficult reality" says one UK source.

Member states are irritated that time is passing and a grey zone of unregulated goods entering the EU via Northern Ireland is developing.

There is no evidence that member states are about to oblige, and placing another loaded gun on the table will certainly not help.

The technical talks to reconcile London’s demands for sweeping flexibilities and the EU's insistence on protecting its single market have been under way since last October.

They have effectively been paused during the elections, but it is clear both sides remain far apart on key issues.

On 25 February, the European Commission circulated an internal "Road Map" listing 25 areas where there is still no agreement.

These include everything from access to UK databases for EU officials, export declarations, the movement of pets, the handling of Economic Operator Registration and Identification (EORI) numbers, the UK's proposed trusted trader scheme, the lack of progress on building Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) to carry out food safety and animal health checks, the listing of UK seed potatoes, trees, soil and "high risk" plants.

The list of areas without agreement includes the movement of pets

Access to UK databases remains a sore point for member states.

On 30 March, Maroš Šefčovič wrote to British foreign secretary Liz Truss asking her to "urgently" address the EU’s concerns over a lack of access to the full set of UK data on what was entering Northern Ireland, access which, he said, was supposed to have been granted a year ago.

A test of the system on 25 February, revealed shortcomings which meant that EU officials working on the ground in Northern Ireland were unable to make a proper risk analysis on goods coming in, nor were they able to impart such information to EU institutions or member states without the UK’s consent.

Many such problems were already set out in a damning audit of the Protocol's implementation carried out by EU inspectors last June.

Member states are irritated, to say the least, that time is passing and a grey zone of unregulated goods entering the EU via Northern Ireland is developing.

The EU has been desperate to avoid getting dragged into the Northern Ireland assembly elections.

The notion, therefore, that threatening to pull checks altogether, and rendering that grey zone even greyer, would force member states to give Šefčovič a new mandate is fanciful to say the least.

That suggests the threat of legislation is more about giving Boris Johnson medium-term political cover than about pushing the legislation all the way to Royal Assent, forcing a stand-off with the House of Lords, and breaching international law along the way.

"If they override the legislation they're breaching their own laws," says one EU diplomat. "But can you just apply a part of an international agreement through a domestic parliamentary decision? Why would you then sign anything with the UK ever?"

EU members are worried about some goods arriving unregulated into Northern Ireland

The EU has been desperate to avoid getting dragged into the Northern Ireland assembly elections. There was a muted response to the Financial Times story by the Commission on Friday afternoon: a reminder that the UK was bound by its international obligations and that the problems of the Protocol could only be dealt with by "joint solutions".

In 2019, the UK introduced the Internal Market Bill, admitting that because some of its clauses breached the Protocol, it therefore breached international law.

Relations plummeted and, with the EU threatening not to conclude the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), London was forced to drop the offending clauses.

The EU did reach agreement with Downing Street on grace periods and flexibilities, so in that sense London did gain some concessions.

Nearly six years after the Brexit referendum, the EU and Northern Ireland remain hostage to Tory Party machinations.

This time around, there is no trade agreement pending so the UK has the luxury of stringing the threat out and allowing a stalemate in Northern Ireland to focus EU minds.

Now, more than in 2019, a bad faith gambit by the UK will put the EU at a disadvantage, even if EU officials were expecting some kind of escalation from London.

A scrap with Britain, while all the EU's political resources are focused on the Ukraine war, is not what capitals want.

"It's part of the UK’s calculation," says one Brussels source. "For the EU it's a very uncomfortable position to be in. It's not an unforeseen one. It's been clear, it's not like this is a big surprise."

A scrap with Britain is not what the EU wants while war ages in Ukraine

If the elections deliver a pro-Protocol majority, Brussels will feel, however, that it has a moral edge to continue with what it calls its "pragmatic" approach to the issues.

How the Biden Administration reacts will also be key (a pause on a US-UK free trade deal would be likely).

There is every possibility that after the elections the EU will adopt a more flexible approach, but not if it believes the UK will bank those concessions and then ask for more, or if they are doing it under duress.

So, nearly six years after the Brexit referendum, the EU and Northern Ireland remain hostage to Tory Party machinations.