Brexiteers wary as Sunak and EU chief prepare to announce Northern Ireland deal
Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen are set to sign off on a new post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland as Conservative Eurosceptics warn the “devil is in the detail”.
The Prime Minister and the European Commission President will hold “final talks” in Windsor, Berkshire, on Monday before she will controversially go on to meet the King.
But even if long-awaited changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol are agreed it is likely to be only the start of the most challenging week of Mr Sunak’s premiership.
He is battling to win the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) so they agree to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland to get Stormont back up and running.
After arriving in London on the Eurostar, Ms von der Leyen said she was “looking forward to turning a page and opening a new chapter with our partner and friend”.
Both Mr Sunak and Ms von der Leyen have arrived at the Fairmont Hotel in Windsor Park, Berkshire, for the final talks.
Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg put Mr Sunak on notice of a possible Tory revolt if the DUP does not support the deal, despite major concessions expected from the EU.
The former Cabinet minister told GB News: “It will all depend on the DUP. If the DUP are against it, I think there will be quite a significant number of Conservatives who are unhappy.”
I’m glad to be in the UK today to meet with Prime Minister @RishiSunak.
I’m looking forward to turning a page and opening a new chapter with our partner and friend. pic.twitter.com/GuyMzy2wbj
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) February 27, 2023
He said that the position of Boris Johnson, who he described as the “biggest figure in UK politics”, will be “fundamental”.
“So, if the DUP doesn’t think that it meets its test, that will be very influential among Conservative MPs,” Mr Rees-Mogg added to ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
“I’m afraid with all the EU deals the devil is in the detail, so when people say ‘we need to see the legal text’, they are not larking about, they really want to see it to understand what the effect is.”
Arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland Office minister who had been on resignation watch, gave Mr Sunak his support.
Leaving No 10, he told broadcasters: “I can only say this: that the Prime Minister is on the cusp of securing a really fantastic result for everyone involved.”
But Charles’s meeting with Ms von der Leyen at Windsor Castle was criticised as “constitutionally unwise” by Mr Rees-Mogg because it involves the King “in a matter of immediate political controversy”.
Baroness Arlene Foster, the former DUP leader and first minister of Northern Ireland, said it was “crass and will go down very badly” with the unionists Mr Sunak is trying to win over.
Meanwhile, Conservative Eurosceptic Theresa Villiers argued that it is “crucial” for Mr Sunak to give MPs a vote on the deal, as Downing Street declined to commit to one.
The former Northern Ireland secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I can’t conceive of circumstances where something as significant as this could be finally agreed and implemented without MPs voting on it in Parliament.”
She said she will consider the deal itself as well as talking to the DUP before deciding whether to support it but stressed the importance of restoring powersharing.
“I will be talking to constituents, talking to colleagues and talking to the DUP because I want to see a deal which delivers a return to powersharing in Northern Ireland – that’s crucial,” she said.
“It’s intolerable that we’ve got the protocol undermining political stability in Northern Ireland.”
Prime Minister @RishiSunak and I agreed to continue working in person towards shared, practical solutions under the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.
I will therefore meet with the Prime Minister tomorrow in the UK.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) February 26, 2023
Sir Keir Starmer reiterated his party’s support for any deal struck but said the real test now is whether Mr Sunak “has got the strength to sell it to his backbenchers or not”.
After a speech in the City of London, he said it is “almost inevitable” that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will “have to play some part” after the deal, a contentious point for the DUP.
But he said “we’ve got to make progress” on Northern Ireland before making “real changes” to the wider Brexit deal.
The Prime Minister will speak to the EU chief at lunchtime before briefing his top ministers in a virtual meeting of the Cabinet.
Mr Sunak and Ms von der Leyen will then set out the deal to voters in a joint press conference before the Prime Minister makes a statement to MPs in the Commons.
Tory Brexiteers on the European Research Group (ERG) will convene MP Sir Bill Cash’s so-called “star chamber” of lawyers to scrutinise the deal before deciding whether to back it.
The protocol, signed by Mr Johnson as PM in 2020, was designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland after Brexit.
Northern Ireland continues to follow EU rules on goods to prevent checks being needed when crossing into the Republic.
But the trade barriers created between Northern Ireland and Great Britain has angered Unionists.
The DUP collapsed powersharing in Stormont last year in protest at its impact, leaving Northern Ireland without an executive or an assembly.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has issued seven tests that Mr Sunak’s new pact will have to meet in order to win the party’s backing.
Chief among them is addressing what he calls the “democratic deficit” of Northern Ireland being subject to EU rules while not having a say on them.
No 10 officials said Mr Sunak would be entering into the talks with Ms von der Leyen looking to “return sovereignty to the people of Northern Ireland”.
“The Prime Minister wants to ensure any deal fixes the practical problems on the ground, ensures trade flows freely within the whole of the UK, safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and returns sovereignty to the people of Northern Ireland,” Downing Street officials said.
Ms von der Leyen had been due to travel to Britain on Saturday to hold talks with Mr Sunak, as well as reportedly meet the King at Windsor Castle for tea, but the plans were scrapped.
DUP chief whip Sammy Wilson said the move would have been “dragging the King into a hugely controversial political issue”.
The deal is expected to include check-free lanes for goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said the reduction in trade red tape would lead to a “substantial scaling back” of the role of the ECJ.
But he refused on Sunday to rule out the court having a say on future legal cases, which could prove to be a flashpoint for DUP resistance.
If Mr Sunak does allow a Commons vote, he is likely to win because Labour has agreed to support it. But he would want to win without relying on Opposition votes.