Boris Johnson's Brexit Warning Not 'Completely Unhelpful', Says Penny Mordaunt
Boris Johnson’s intervention in negotiations over the Brexit impasse in Northern Ireland is not “completely unhelpful”, a cabinet minister has claimed.
Rishi Sunak is engaged in frantic diplomacy to secure a UK-EU agreement on fixing issues with the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Johnson warned that dropping the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – which would empower the UK to unilaterally scrap parts of the treaty – would be a “great mistake”.
It is the first intervention by Johnson on Brexit since departing No.10 and has been seen as a challenge to Sunak.
But speaking to Sky News on Sunday morning, Commons leader Penny Mordaunt said the former PM’s decision to speak out was not necessarily a problem.
“Boris is being Boris,” she said. “I wouldn’t say this is a completely unhelpful intervention.”
Mordaunt said “good progress has been made” in the talks and it was “helpful” of Johnson to remind the EU of the Bill.
“The prime minister, I think, will acknowledge that having the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill there, having the work that the former prime minister did has helped us get where we are,” she said.
After further talks with EU leaders on Saturday, Sunak stressed that a deal is “by no means done”, amid speculation one could be unveiled early next week.
The government has indicated that a successful outcome would mean the Protocol Bill would no longer be required.
A senior government source said: “If we can find a way to satisfactorily resolve the issues with the Protocol then you wouldn’t need the Bill. But we haven’t resolved them yet.”
Johnson negotiated the protocol, which created economic barriers on trade being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as part of his Brexit deal, but later turned against it.
Soured relations between London and Brussels deteriorated further when his government tabled the controversial Protocol Bill at Westminster.
The legislation is seen by Brexiteers as a key bargaining chip with the EU.
When Sunak entered office, he paused progress of the Bill as officials resumed intensive talks aimed at reaching a negotiated settlement.
A source close to Johnson said: “His general thinking is that it would be a great mistake to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.”
His intervention will raise concerns over a potential Tory rebellion if Sunak’s changes are put to a vote in Parliament.
Eurosceptic backbenchers will be angered by any compromise with the EU, particularly over the oversight role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Northern Ireland.
The court is likely to retain the final say on single market issues as this is a red line for the bloc, fuelling sovereignty concerns among Tory hardliners and Northern Ireland unionists.
James Duddridge, a former Brexit minister, told The Daily Telegraph a deal including a role for the ECJ would be a “wedge” to a real Brexit.
“The PM would be unwise to put his own neck on the chopping block,” he said, adding that “a large number of Brexiteers” would revolt.
But Sunak can rely on Labour’s support in a Commons vote, as Keir Starmer took the unusual step of offering it.
The Labour leader told The Observer: “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.”
However, Mr Sunak would likely face a backlash from within his own ranks if he tries to get a deal over the line on the back of the opposition party’s support.