Johnson’s NI Protocol warning not completely unhelpful, says Mordaunt

Johnson’s NI Protocol warning not completely unhelpful, says Mordaunt

Boris Johnson’s warning over a deal to fix issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol was not “completely unhelpful”, a senior Cabinet minister has said.

The former prime minister said overnight that dropping the Protocol Bill – which would empower the UK to unilaterally scrap parts of the treaty – would be a “great mistake”.

Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt said Mr Johnson’s intervention would “remind the EU” of the Bill, which is seen by Brexiteers as a key bargaining chip with the bloc.

It comes as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appears on the cusp of reaching an agreement with the EU aimed at breaking the impasse over the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Ms Mordaunt stressed a deal must work for all communities in Northern Ireland and pass the seven tests set out by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

On Mr Johnson’s remarks, she told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “Boris is being Boris.

“But I wouldn’t say this is a completely unhelpful intervention.”

It is “helpful to remind the EU of that Bill, and what this deal actually has to deliver”, she added.

But Mr Johnson faced accusations of “trying to wreck” any deal to “undermine” Mr Sunak, after a source close to ex-prime minister said on Saturday night that “his general thinking is that it would be a great mistake to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill”.

Mr Johnson is “causing trouble” because he is “interested in becoming prime minister again”, Tory former chancellor George Osborne said.

“He wants to bring down Rishi Sunak and he will use any instrument to do it – and if the Northern Ireland negotiations are that instrument, he will pick that up and hit Mr Sunak over the head with it,” he told Channel 4’s The Andrew Neil Show.

Labour former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Mandelson said: “There’s nothing that Boris Johnson is doing now or, indeed, throughout our recent history with the European Union that could possibly be described as helpful.

“He’s wrecking, he’s trying to wreck the thing because he’s opposed to the Prime Minister.”

A senior Government official indicated that a successful outcome would mean the Protocol Bill – tabled at Westminster under Mr Johnson’s leadership but paused when Mr Sunak entered No 10 – would no longer be required.

Coming out in support of Mr Johnson was Lord Frost, who negotiated the former PM’s original Brexit deal. He called for the Government to “push on with the Protocol Bill”.

Ms Mordaunt suggested a deal would not work unless the DUP supports it, which the party is unlikely to do if the European Court of Justice (ECJ) retains an oversight role in the region.

She said Mr Sunak had been focused in his negotiations on the “democratic deficit”, a term used by Northern Ireland unionists to describe the application of EU rules in the region without local politicians having a say.

The Commons Leader told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme: “It’s about the communities in Northern Ireland and particularly the seven tests the DUP have set out, which don’t explicitly mention the court. But clearly, they’re wanting to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom and they’re also wanting to be able to have a say over any future regulations.

“Those are the tests. This has to pass. If this deal does not pass those tests, it won’t work, it’s as simple as that.”

Northern Ireland unionists argue that placing an effective trade border across the Irish Sea undermines the region’s place within the UK (Liam McBurney/PA)

Unionists oppose the Protocol, which was agreed to ensure free movement of goods across the Irish land border after Brexit, as they claim that placing an effective border across the Irish Sea has weakened Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.

The DUP is blocking a government from being formed in Stormont in protest at the arrangements and said its tests must be met for its boycott to end.

“The deal that the Prime Minister is trying to negotiate at the moment is going to be a key part of getting the Assembly stood up again,” Ms Mordaunt said.

Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former business secretary, said he backed the DUP’s tests as “extremely reasonable”.

But Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said that “irrespective” of the DUP’s tests, the “bottom line” for the majority of people in the region was retaining dual market access to the EU and UK in any deal.

The issue of the ECJ’s role should not be “blown out of all proportion”, she told Sky News.

“In order to remain part of the single market, there are certain things that we have to adapt to in Northern Ireland. One of those is where the final point of decision making on disputes will be.

“Unionism treat it as though it is a constitutional issue. Most businesses, I think most people, treat it as a pragmatic solution to a problem which needs to be resolved”.

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak met with EU leaders in Germany in a weekend of frantic diplomacy to strike a deal on the NI Protocol (Ben Stansall/PA)

A UK-EU agreement has not yet been reached, Ms Mordaunt said, echoing the Prime Minister’s assessment that a deal was “by no means done” after he held further talks with EU leaders on Saturday.

The Commons leader said: “Both sides of the negotiations have said we’re not there yet. But those negotiations are still progressing and there are optimistic signs.”

There is speculation a deal could be presented to MPs as soon as this week.

Government whips and civil servants are preparing for the Prime Minister to talk to the Cabinet on Monday or Tuesday, with a statement to the Commons and a debate once there is a formal agreement, the Sunday Times reported.

Mr Johnson’s intervention has raised concerns over a potential rebellion by Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers if Mr Sunak’s changes are put to a vote in Parliament.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper reiterated that Labour would “provide political cover” for the Government in a vote.

She said the role of the ECJ had become a “big symbolic issue” for certain quarters of the Tory party, while Labour was more focused on a deal that “just simplifies the process for trade” and a “common sense approach”.