British prime minister Rishi Sunak is on a collision course with Boris Johnson over his plans to overhaul Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements amid a diplomatic blitz to end the bitter dispute with the EU.
In the latest sign of the political danger Mr Sunak faces as he attempts to reform the Northern Ireland protocol, it is understood former UK prime minister Mr Johnson has become concerned that a successful deal will see the government ditch controversial legislation allowing the UK to unilaterally rip up some Brexit arrangements in the North.
With Mr Johnson and the Tory right threatening to disrupt the deal, Labour leader Keir Starmer told the Observer he was taking the extraordinary step of offering his party’s support in any parliamentary vote on the agreement, enabling Mr Sunak to stop “scrambling around to appease an intransigent rump of his own backbenchers”.
There has been persistent concern among Mr Sunak’s allies that Mr Johnson could attempt to derail a compromise with Brussels. Keeping the Northern Ireland protocol Bill, introduced by the Johnson government and currently working its way through parliament, now appears to have become a key test for the former prime minister.
However, a British cabinet minister said on Sunday that an intervention by Mr Johnson is “not entirely unhelpful”.
Penny Mordaunt, the Commons leader, suggested concerns reportedly raised by the former prime minister were a welcome reminder to Brussels of the threat that Britain could try to unilaterally override the Northern Ireland protocol.
The Bill designed to do so is paused, but Ms Mordaunt said that “Boris is being Boris” and added: “The intervention by a source close to the previous prime minister is helpful to remind the EU of that Bill”.
While government insiders are at pains to state that there is much work to do on the details of any deal, they have signalled that a successful outcome would mean the bill would not be needed.
“If we can find a way to satisfactorily resolve the issues with the protocol then you wouldn’t need the Bill,” said a senior official. “But we haven’t resolved them yet.”
Supporters of the legislation insist it would give the UK continued leverage over Brussels. A source close to Mr Johnson said it was his view that “it would be a great mistake to drop the Northern Ireland protocol bill”.
The new threat comes as Mr Starmer called on Mr Sunak to sidestep his hardline MPs by winning a vote on a deal with Labour backing. “This is no time for political brinkmanship,” he said. “This situation has dragged on for too long, and the stakes are too high.
“My offer to the prime minister stands. If a deal is on the table, and it delivers for the UK, Labour will back it. He doesn’t need to go scrambling around to appease an intransigent rump of his own backbenchers who will never be satisfied with anything. Labour’s priorities are clear and uncompromising: country first, party second.
“Twenty-five years ago, politicians of all sides showed courage and leadership to strike a deal that many said would be impossible. They put people before politics. We owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to do the same again,” Mr Starmer said.
Downing Street has not yet decided whether or not to put any eventual deal to a vote, preferring to wait until a full agreement is on the table.
There are already warnings from inside the government and among the most pro-Brexit wing of the Tory party that Sunak will face a political backlash if he tries to secure the deal on the back of Labour support. If Downing Street opts not to hold a vote, some MPs are already threatening to engineer one.
Although details of the deal have not yet been published, it would involve separating goods from Britain that are staying within Northern Ireland and ensuring they do not have to undergo routine checks. There are also concerns that Northern Ireland has no say over new rules and regulations coming from the EU.
Although MPs have not yet seen any details of the agreement, one figure on the Tory right said it already appeared to be “half baked” and would not deal with fundamental sovereignty concerns held by many Tories and the DUP.
Appearing at the Munich security conference on Saturday, Mr Sunak attempted to dampen expectations of an imminent announcement, warning that an agreement was “by no means done”.
The prime minister used the conference to hold bilateral talks over Northern Ireland with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
Mr Sunak met the five main Stormont parties in Belfast last week. However, the DUP warned his proposed deal did not go far enough in resolving its concerns.
In a weekend message to the unionist party’s members, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said: “Progress has been made in some areas and while that is welcome, in other key areas it currently falls short of what would be acceptable and required to meet our seven tests.
“I have indicated to the prime minister that it is important he agrees the right deal rather than a rushed deal. Solutions must be found which respect Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market and deal with the democratic deficit created by the protocol.”
Irish Government officials briefed on the talks said that the DUP “won’t get all they want” but that the EU had moved substantially to accommodate unionist concerns.
“The DUP will get a lot of what they want but not everything – there is a need to compromise,” a source said.
Irish sources also said that it was very clear that the primary concern of the British government was to ease tensions with the EU for economic and trade reasons.
On Saturday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar briefed Ms von der Leyen, on the state-of-play ahead of her meeting with Mr Sunak.
Mr Varadkar “expressed his strong wish to see a positive outcome that provides a new foundation for relations between the EU and the UK,” a spokesman said. “Most importantly, he hoped for an agreement that can pave the way for restoration of the institutions under the Good Friday Agreement.”
Asked about the state of talks on Saturday, a European official said there was “some creativity” taking place, adding that the outcome was hopefully coming soon.
The official said: “A decision has to be made on how to solve these technical issues because it is mostly about technical issues now.” The source added that recently “the atmosphere was different”. – Guardian