Boris Johnson declined to say whether he would back any new deal negotiated by the Prime Minister on the Northern Ireland Protocol, as talks continue between the UK and EU.
The former prime minister pitched the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, put forward by his administration and which effectively rips up parts of the agreement with Brussels, as the best solution as he declined to say whether a new deal would have his support.
Mr Johnson, who sits on the backbenches but who retains a loyal following within the Conservatives, appeared to warn against any settlement that would create “other problems”.
It comes as negotiations between London and Brussels continue, following talks between Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and the EU’s Maros Sefcovic in Belgium on Thursday.
Another constructive meeting with @MarosSefcovic 🇬🇧 🇪🇺 on the NI Protocol.
We are committed to finding a durable solution that works for the people of NI and protects the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
Intensive work continues. pic.twitter.com/YVlOT4ddSi
— Chris Heaton-Harris MP (@chhcalling) February 23, 2023
Government sources have downplayed the chances of an agreement being struck this week, with no announcement expected to come on Friday as it marks a year since Russia began its all-out assault on Ukraine.
Mr Johnson, in an interview marking the anniversary of the invasion, was asked briefly about the post-Brexit arrangement he negotiated and which has been the source of bitter political clashes in Belfast and Westminster.
He said: “I think that it is important to wait to see what there may be but I think the best way forward, as I said when I was running the Government, is the Northern Ireland Bill, which cleared the Commons very comfortably, I think unamended, when I was in office and only a few months ago.
“So, I think that is the best way forward.”
The protocol, agreed as part of the UK’s Brexit deal, effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, meaning checks on products crossing from Great Britain.
🇪🇺🇬🇧 Appreciate the visit of Northern Ireland Secretary @chhcalling to Brussels.
We continue to engage on the outstanding issues related to the Protocol. Striving for joint solutions in the interest of all communities in NI and protective of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. pic.twitter.com/nwBFUHRRYc
— Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) February 23, 2023
The situation led to the collapse of powersharing in Northern Ireland, with the DUP protesting about the barrier to trade with the rest of the UK.
Downing Street has set no deadline for resolving the issue, but the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April adds to the imperative of getting a deal soon.
The former prime minister was asked about his backing for any deal, but refused to say whether Rishi Sunak could count on his support.
“I think the best thing is to continue with the Northern Ireland Bill that we agreed, it is a very good Bill, it fixes all the problems, it solves the problems we have in the Irish Sea, it solves the problems of paperwork, VAT and so on, it is an excellent Bill and doesn’t set up any other problems in the economy of the whole island of Ireland,” he said.
“So, I’d go with that one.”
The former prime minister had made his feelings on the Bill clear in recent days, with his intervention prompting other senior Tories to press Mr Sunak to push ahead with proposed legislation, currently in the House of Lords.
Any final settlement with the EU is seen as fraught with political risk for the Prime Minister, who faces potential pushback from Northern Ireland’s DUP and Brexit hardliners in the Tory party.
Neither the Northern Ireland Secretary nor Mr Sefcovic offered much indication of when the next set of talks would take place.
Mr Sefcovic, tweeting after the meeting, said that both sides “continue to engage on the outstanding issues”.
Mr Heaton-Harris called it a “constructive meeting”, adding that “intensive work continues”.