Rishi Sunak promises to be ‘resolute’ in negotiations over Brexit protocol
Rishi Sunak promised to be “resolute” in defending Northern Ireland as he seeks a deal to rewrite the terms of its post-Brexit arrangements.
The Prime Minister indicated that he would put any new deal to a vote in the Commons, risking a showdown with Eurosceptics on the Tory benches.
The Government and the European Union are still negotiating changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the arrangements aimed at preventing a hard border with Ireland.
Mr Sunak told MPs: “I am a Conservative, a Brexiter and a unionist, and any agreement that we reach needs to tick all three boxes.
“It needs to ensure sovereignty for Northern Ireland, it needs to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in our union, and it needs to find practical solutions to the problems faced by people and businesses.
“I will be resolute in fighting for what is best for Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.”
The Prime Minister spoke to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday night, Downing Street said.
“The leaders discussed the good progress made in the negotiations. Intensive discussions continue. They agreed to speak again in the coming days,” the spokesman said.
Mr Sunak spoke virtually to Northern Ireland businesses groups on Wednesday afternoon, with Downing Street saying that he promised them “certainty, stability and clarity” from any deal.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said his party’s MPs would vote to get a deal through the Commons, suggesting that Mr Sunak should rely on Opposition support rather than trying to win over the “irreconcilables”, the “malcontents” and “wreckers” on the Tory benches.
He said the Prime Minister had to be “honest” that there would be a continued role for the European Court of Justice and Northern Ireland would have to continue to follow some of Brussels’ laws.
Being forced to rely on Labour votes to overcome a revolt on his own benches would undermine Mr Sunak’s leadership and he is determined to win over potential rebels.
Mr Sunak said he wanted a deal that guaranteed “sovereignty for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland’s place in our precious union” and provided “practical solutions to the problems faced by people and businesses”.
He added: “I have a good understanding of what is required and I will keep fighting until we get it.”
The Prime Minister said Sir Keir’s approach was to “give the EU a blank cheque and agree to anything they offer. It’s not a strategy, that’s surrender”.
Pressed on whether MPs would get a vote on any changes to the protocol agreed with Brussels, Mr Sunak said: “Of course Parliament will express its view.”
The protocol, agreed as part of the UK’s Brexit deal, effectively kept Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, meaning checks on products crossing from Great Britain.
The situation led to the collapse of powersharing in Northern Ireland, with the Democratic Unionist Party protesting about the barrier to trade with the rest of the UK.
Thank you @MarosSefcovic for another discussion with @chhcalling and me on the NI Protocol.
As work continues between teams, we remain laser-focussed on finding a solution that works for the people of Northern Ireland.
Looking forward to speaking again soon.
— James Cleverly🇬🇧 (@JamesCleverly) February 21, 2023
With the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April, there is symbolic importance in getting a deal which could allow the Stormont administration to be re-established.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told Mr Sunak: “It is unacceptable that Northern Ireland has been put in this place with a protocol imposed upon us, that harms our place in the UK.
“It must be replaced with arrangements that are acceptable and restore our place in the UK and its internal market.”
He warned that it was “unacceptable” for EU laws to be imposed on Northern Ireland with no democratic scrutiny or consent and said any deal must not involve simply “tweaking” the protocol but instead “rewriting the legally binding treaty text”.
Mr Sunak said addressing the “democratic deficit” was an essential part of the negotiations with Brussels and he had heard the DUP’s concerns “loud and clear”.
Sir Jeffrey addressed Tory Eurosceptics on Tuesday night, and the views of the DUP on any deal will carry significant weight for potential Conservative rebels.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic have held a series of talks in recent days as intensive work to finalise a deal has continued.
Mr Sunak’s conversation with Ms von der Leyen on Tuesday night followed talks with her in the margins of a summit in Munich on Saturday.
Mr Cleverly discussed the protocol at a sparsely attended meeting of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives but stuck firmly to his position of not giving a “running commentary” when fielding questions from MPs.
He told them there remain “a number of hurdles to overcome yet”, according to MP Michael Fabricant.