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Rees-Mogg wades in as Brexiteers told to give Sunak ‘space’ on Northern Ireland

Rees-Mogg wades in as Brexiteers told to give Sunak ‘space’ on Northern Ireland

Jacob Rees-Mogg has accused Rishi Sunak of imitating Theresa May’s doomed Brexit strategy as Tory Eurosceptics were urged to allow the “time and space” needed to fix the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The prominent Brexiteer questioned why “so much political capital” was being spent on brokering a new deal without ensuring the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and his wing of the Conservative Party were on board.

Negotiators could “see the finishing line” for a deal as fresh high-level talks were arranged with the European Union amid warnings of potential ministerial resignations over any deal.

Irish premier Leo Varadkar was unsure whether a breakthrough could come this week, but said a “huge amount of progress has been made” as he called for Mr Sunak to be given “some time and space” so he can consult with the Conservatives.

Health minister Maria Caulfield, a Brexiteer who quit Theresa May’s frontbench over her Chequers plan, urged colleagues to “support the Prime Minister”.

“There isn’t a deal done yet so all these rumours about ministers or MPs not being happy, I haven’t seen the details, we have to give the Prime Minister that time and space to get these negotiations done,” she told Times Radio.

“We need to give him the time and space to thrash out the final elements of any final deal.”

But Mr Rees-Mogg, a former Cabinet minister and long-term critic of Mr Sunak, criticised his tactics as similar to those that eventually led to the resignation of Mrs May as prime minister.

He joined Boris Johnson in urging Mr Sunak to press ahead with the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, effectively ripping up parts of the agreement with Brussels, rather than seeking a deal which may not guarantee the return of a powersharing executive in Stormont.

But in a new rift in the Tory party, former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland wrote in an article published in The House magazine that the Bill “no longer has any legal justification” now the situation has “dramatically” changed.

On his ConservativeHome podcast, Mr Rees-Mogg said: “There seems to me to be no point in agreeing a deal that does not restore powersharing.

Theresa May
Mr Rees-Mogg drew parallels between Mr Sunak’s strategy and that of former prime minister Theresa May (Toby Melville/PA)

“That must be the objective. If it doesn’t achieve that objective, I don’t understand why the Government is spending political capital on something that won’t ultimately succeed.”

He said the Bill has the support of “the person who had a mandate from the British voters” – Mr Johnson – and he said Mr Sunak should first get the approval of the European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative Eurosceptics.

“I don’t know why so much political capital has been spent on something without getting the DUP and the ERG onside first,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.

It was “very similar to what happened with Theresa May” where a policy would be presented in the hope that people would “conveniently fall in behind” it, he said.

“Life doesn’t work like that. It’s important to get support for it first before you finalise the details and that doesn’t seem to have been done here.”

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris held fresh video talks with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Tuesday afternoon.

Mr Sefcovic said the talks “continue at high intensity” and “we remain in close touch, focused on finding joint solutions”, indicating they were set to speak again soon.

They had been expected to hold face-to-face talks later this week following conversations by video link on Monday and Tuesday.

Mr Cleverly said: “As work continues between (our) teams, we remain laser-focused on finding a solution that works for the people of Northern Ireland.”

Government insiders still believe a deal could be struck in the coming days, but acknowledged it would slip to next week if not concluded by the one-year anniversary of the Ukrainian conflict on Friday.

Mr Sunak told his Cabinet meeting “intensive negotiations with the EU continue on resolving the issues with the way the protocol was being enforced”, Downing Street said.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Negotiations have progressed and that is to be welcomed, but there still remain a number of unresolved issues. And as is the nature of these negotiations it is often some of the more long-lasting challenges that need to be addressed as you get to this point, and that’s not unusual.”

The spokesman disputed Mr Rees-Mogg’s suggestion that the DUP and ERG should have been brought into discussions earlier, saying “we have been speaking to relevant parties at the appropriate times throughout this process”.

“Engagement will continue as we continue to negotiate, emphasising there are still intensive negotiations ongoing. There is no finished deal,” the official added.