The Prime Minister has suggested Britain may be prepared to breach international law to safeguard its steel industry.
Boris Johnson argued at the G7 summit in Germany it is reasonable for UK steel to enjoy the “same protections” as other European economies.
The Telegraph has reported the PM intends to impose sweeping new steel tariffs in a drive to win back support in traditional Labour heartlands.
It said ministers also plan to announce a two-year extension of steel tariffs already imposed on developed countries and China.
The newspaper said the changes were the same as those cited by Lord Geidt when he quit as Mr Johnson’s ethics chief, as he claimed he had been put in an “impossible and odious” position by the Prime Minister.
The peer said in his resignation letter that he had been only credibly clinging on to his role “by a very small margin” over lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street.
But he said he was forced to quit when he was tasked with offering a view on the Government’s “intention to consider measures which risk a deliberate and purposeful breach of the Ministerial Code”.
This was widely taken to mean the question of extending tariffs on steel imports despite possibly breaking World Trade Organisation (WTO) commitments.
Asked about reports he is ready to breach WTO rules by imposing sweeping new tariffs, Mr Johnson said: “I think it’s very important people understand the context of this, and that is that the UK steel industry has been going through a difficult time, partly because of the energy prices that I have been talking about.
“We have a system in the UK where we don’t privilege our industry in the way that some other countries do. 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.”
Mr Johnson noted “the proposal would be for us to take off those protections, take off those tariffs” unilaterally, adding: “I don’t think that’s the right way forward. I want another solution.
“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.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said it is “right” the Government looks to get the correct “balance” when it comes to trade, insisting it always works “within international law”.
Asked about the reports ministers were contemplating imposing steel tariffs which may be deemed illegal, he told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme: “Well, we always work and are focused on ensuring we work within international law.”
Pressed on whether the Government would impose the tariffs even if it threatened a trade war of some sort, he said: “I’m not saying we’re going to do this, the Chancellor and the Business Secretary and the Prime Minister have got to look at all of these things.
“They’ve got to get the balance around what we do and how we trade internationally with people, as well as protecting and delivering on a sector of the economy here that is important for jobs.
“I think it is right that they’re looking at all of these things to be able to make the right decisions to protect jobs here, to see our economy grow, and to make sure we’ve got the input for steel, for example, that we need to grow our infrastructure in the future, which is so important to our future economy.”
Downing Street said decisions on steel tariffs would be made shortly and would “balance our international obligations and the national interest”.