By Elizabeth Piper and Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) - A small group of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers are swimming against the tide of almost universal approval for a new deal between Britain and the EU on trade rules for Northern Ireland, questioning whether it fundamentally changes anything.
After more than three years of wrangling over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol that sets the post-Brexit trade rules for the British province, most politicians are relieved that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has offered a way to solve the row.
But for a handful of Brexit supporters, there is scepticism that the amended version of the protocol, unveiled by Sunak as the Windsor Framework, does little more than tweak an earlier deal they had wanted rewritten to ensure Northern Ireland follows laws made in London, rather than in Brussels.
Sunak is gambling that the changes he negotiated with the European Union will secure the widespread support he needs to help him reset relations with the bloc, and the United States, and cement his authority over his party.
Members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) say they will wait for their lawyers to go through the fine print before offering a verdict. But some said, after an ERG meeting on Tuesday, they felt the new deal was being "oversold".
"The protocol is virtually untouched. It amounts to a handbook on how the protocol should be applied," said a lawmaker present at Tuesday's meeting.
"Not to say it's not an improvement in practical terms, it's just that the substance is little changed," the lawmaker said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity. "There is a lot of concern that doesn't reflect the euphoria of Monday."
Three members of the ERG said they were concerned by several elements of the deal, including the so-called Stormont brake to give Northern Ireland more say over accepting EU laws, as well as state aid rules and the role of the bloc's main court.
Sunak, who announced the new deal alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the town of Windsor on Monday, says he has rewritten the protocol, easing trade restrictions between Britain and Northern Ireland, handing sovereignty back to the province and protecting its place in the United Kingdom.
But critics say the two sides are offering contradictory presentations of the deal - London says the Windsor Framework replaces the Northern Ireland protocol, Brussels says the "new arrangements" fall within the framework of the protocol.
Sunak has said he will listen to concerns and answer any questions about the deal, but his foreign minister, James Cleverly, said the government does not want to make any further changes to the "finely balanced document".
Other Conservatives have praised the new deal, saying at a separate meeting on Tuesday that the framework seemed to be "universally backed".
This strength of feeling could convince Sunak he can ignore members of the ERG, who once had the power to unseat prime ministers but have seen their support dwindle since Britain left the EU in 2020.
Several ERG members are now in Sunak's team of top ministers and two former chairs of the group - Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker - are ministers in the Northern Ireland Office who all back the deal.
"My sense is everybody realises this is as good as we're going to get," Baker told reporters on Tuesday. "This is what is available ... it really wouldn't be sensible to drop it."
The ERG has said it will follow the lead of Northern Ireland's biggest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, which felt sacrificed by the Conservative group when their protests at the protocol were overridden in late 2019.
The group then fell in line with former prime minister Boris Johnson, who agreed a deal which essentially drew a border down the Irish Sea, a move the DUP felt undermined Northern Ireland's position in the United Kingdom.
It is something, some members of the ERG say, they do not want to repeat.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Christina Fincher)