Rishi Sunak defies Tory right and pushes for deal on Northern Ireland Protocol
Rishi Sunak is preparing to defy his Conservative critics and push for reform of post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, with allies saying the vast majority of Tory MPs just want to settle the issue.
The UK prime minister spoke to Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, on Friday to make a fresh attempt to strike a deal, with speculation growing that it could be announced soon.
EU officials said the call was “positive”, while British officials said a “positive breakthrough” had been achieved. According to officials close to the negotiations, Sun could reach a deal as early as the weekend or as early as Monday.
Downing Street declined to comment on the timing, but a key Sun ally said: “We know almost 300 of our MPs just want to get this done – they’ve had enough.”
Downing Street is watching with concern as around 60 of the 355 Tory MPs have expressed concerns about the deal with Brussels.
Much depends on whether the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland reacts positively to – or at least does not immediately reject – Sunak’s agreement. Party managers estimate at least 30 potential Tory rebels could back the deal with DUP cover.
Sunak wants to make last-minute changes to the text of the deal in an attempt to win over the DUP and get it to return to power-sharing leadership at Stormont.
Downing Street said talks with the EU had “intensified over the past week and good progress has been made with some positive breakthroughs”.
Tory MPs are set for a three-line whip to attend Parliament on Monday, although party sources insisted this was standard procedure on a busy legislative day in Parliament. Cabinet ministers could be briefed this weekend, Tory officials said.
Sunak does not have to call a Commons vote on reforming the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of former prime minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal, but could choose to hold one.
In any case, he wants Tory MPs to show their strength in favor of a deal aimed at improving the situation in Northern Ireland and significantly strengthening Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Sunak and von der Leyen discuss a political declaration on the implementation of the protocol, which will reduce border controls, increase democratic control and limit the role of the European Court of Justice.
Irish Sea ports would create a “green belt” with minimal controls for goods traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland if they wanted to stay within the region. A ‘red lane’ would be created for goods moving on to the Republic of Ireland and the single market.
Including VAT and state aid, they would be managed from London, not Brussels. Joint committees would oversee the new rules for handling disputes.
Since Sunak presented the draft contract to the DUP last week, party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has made new demands. According to him, the agreement should include amendments to the treaty, not just a political statement.
Donaldson also wants Northern Irish companies to be able to produce goods for export to the British market according to British standards instead of EU rules. According to the protocol, the region is part of the EU’s single goods market.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said on Friday that the UK government’s priority was to win over the DUP, although Donaldson’s party said it would need time to scrutinize the legal details of the deal.
“When we hopefully resolve these issues, I hope the DUP will recognize that we have addressed their concerns,” Cleverly told Times Radio. “Until these concerns are addressed, we will not sign the agreement.”
Among the Tory MPs likely to cause trouble for Sunak is Johnson, who wants to promote legislation that would unilaterally end the protocol.
Northern Irish politicians were expected to attend a demonstration in Omagh on Saturday, where a senior police officer was shot and fatally wounded on Wednesday night. The attack, carried out by suspected dissident republicans, was believed to be unrelated to the protocol, but shocked the region and evoked chilling memories of the three-decade conflict.
A DUP insider said: “If we get this wrong, we will send the next generation into further division and I very much doubt that if this goes wrong, the Northern Ireland Assembly will ever be resurrected.”