Rishi Sunak is gearing up for the biggest political test of his premiership as he prepares to unveil a deal with the European Union that risks a stand-off with Northern Ireland unionists and members of his own party.
A solution to the impasse in Northern Ireland would enable the UK to reset relations with the EU, its biggest trading partner, more than the three years after Britain formally left the bloc. The prime minister also hopes to persuade the Democratic Unionist Party to drop its veto on the formation of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive. They’ve blocked its functioning for more than a year in protest at the so-called protocol, the portion of the Brexit deal governing the region’s unique place in the EU and UK’s trading markets.
Though the timing of a final agreement remains fluid, plans have been drawn up for an announcement as soon as this week. Sunak oversaw a diplomatic flurry in recent days, holding meetings with parties in Northern Ireland and with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to lay the groundwork.
Despite newspaper reports of a Monday announcement, it’s now likely to be pushed back by at least a day as Sunak continues to engage with the EU and the DUP, a senior government official said.
Sunak’s approach toward his own Tory MPs switched course over the weekend. Having kept even most ministers in the dark about the status of a deal so far, government whips began contacting MPs on Saturday for their views on the shape of a final agreement. They echoed Sunak’s words at the Munich Security Conference, telling MPs that progress had been made but more work was required.
That sparked the revival of old Brexit debates in WhatsApp group chats of Tory MPs over the weekend, with the role of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland at the forefront of their minds.
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Though Sunak has secured 90% of his demands in the talks with the EU, he’s been unable to convince the bloc that the ECJ should have no role in Northern Ireland, people close to the UK side said. The EU, for its part, has assured member states that the integrity of the single market and the ECJ will be respected.
Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith wrote in the Telegraph on Saturday that “so long as EU law and regulations apply to Northern Ireland, leaving the province outside the UK’s own single market and the remit of exclusively UK law, the DUP cannot go back into the Assembly.”
Meanwhile, former premier Boris Johnson continues to be a thorn in Sunak’s side.
He believes Sunak would be making a great mistake if he drops the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill — legislation Johnson and Liz Truss introduced to allow ministers to unilaterally rewrite the bulk of the protocol — a person close to him said. Until Johnson has seen the text of a deal he can’t come to a judgment on the terms of the agreement, the person said.
Government minister Penny Mordaunt told Sky News on Sunday that Johnson’s intervention wasn’t “completely unhelpful” and said the DUP’s seven tests for an agreement to get their seal of approval, is the bar that the government’s deal “has to get over.”
The use of the bill would depend on the kind of deal struck and the government already has the powers needed to implement a negotiated agreement, a senior government official said.
Meanwhile, the DUP remains in close communication with the European Research Group of hardline Brexit Tory MPs. Though some have privately conceded they don’t have the power to block any new agreement, the ERG plans to meet Tuesday, the outcome of which could undermine Sunak’s ability to gain the DUP’s endorsement.
Sunak may have to proceed without the support of some Northern Ireland unionists and Tory Brexiteers, though he hopes to win others round. A government official told Bloomberg there were three possible outcomes: that the DUP agrees to a deal and it proceeds unopposed; a more likely scenario in which some DUP and ERG MPs oppose an agreement but can’t block it; and one in which Sunak attempts further negotiations, largely for show.
He’s likely to win a vote in the House of Commons regardless, if he chooses to hold one, because the opposition Labour Party has offered Sunak “political cover” to get a deal over the line. Even so, Sunak’s ability to manage the fragile politics of the next week could end in triumph or chaos.