Rishi Sunak is set to scrap Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill as part of his new deal with Brussels.
The Prime Minister believes he has secured fundamental legal changes that render the Bill – designed to give the Government power to rip up parts of the protocol – no longer necessary as a bargaining chip.
But in a sign of the growing rebellion against his deal, Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland minister and a leading Brexiteer, was understood on Saturday night to be on resignation watch after being frozen out of negotiations.
Allies said he has been unhappy for some time and was prepared to walk if he is not convinced by the deal, expected to be announced as soon as Monday.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) warned that Mr Sunak’s deal risked leaving Stormont in a permanent state of collapse if they refuse to re-enter power-sharing.
Writing for The Telegraph, Mr Sunak said that when the EU had previously refused to negotiate on the protocol, the Bill was “the only way forwards”.
But he added that the Bill, brought in while Mr Johnson was in office, was always a “last resort”. Mr Johnson has warned that ditching the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in favour of a new Brexit deal would be a “great mistake”.
Mr Sunak wrote: “No British Prime Minister could ever sit back and just allow these problems to continue. That’s why my predecessors were right to create the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – and why I supported them in doing so.
“For as long as the European Union refused to reopen negotiations on the protocol itself, this Bill was the only way forwards. I have no doubt it helped to create the conditions where the EU have been prepared to engage constructively.
“But my predecessors were also right to say this Bill was a last resort. Like them, I have always said a negotiated solution would be a better outcome.”
The Telegraph understands that Mr Baker has not been involved in – or briefed on – discussions, despite being appointed a minister of state at the Northern Ireland Office.
“Steve is the ultimate man of principle,” said one friend. “If it’s not good enough, I would be surprised if he just accepted it.” Another said: “I don’t see why he would stay in a Government that doesn’t deliver on Brexit – that’s the same as anyone in Government.” Mr Baker declined to comment.
Sources close to Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, and Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, the other leading Brexiteers in the Cabinet, strongly denied that they would resign over the deal.
The European Research Group of Tory MPs said it too had been locked out of discussions. “All this cloak and dagger stuff surrounding the ‘deal’ suggests the Government are not very confident about the actual contents,” said a senior Brexiteer.
“Either way, they would be well advised to allow Parliament good time to study the detailed, legal text that underpins it, as any attempt to bounce the Commons is only likely to backfire – perhaps very seriously.”
A senior DUP source also complained that the party had also been largely shut out of the talks. “It’s a strange way of approaching a political problem – only involve the people that you want to persuade at the very last minute, and then don’t let them see the details so they can decide for themselves their own tests?” the source told The Telegraph.
“No doubt we’ll hear people say: ‘Well, the DUP need to accept this – after all, it meets their tests.’ Well, we’ll judge our tests, not anybody else.”
The party’s seven tests for returning to Stormont include removing all checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and ending the obligation to accept EU rules without having a say in how they are made or enforced.
The source added: “We’ve made it clear that not enough progress has been made on some fundamental issues. That’s the message that has gone back. He runs the risk of sealing a deal that doesn’t actually deliver the objective of getting Stormont back.”
On Saturday night, sources close to Liz Truss warned any deal that does not solve problems around customs, regulation, tax and spend and governance “is going to be problematic and would not have her support”.
The deal is likely to retain the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the ultimate arbiter of disputes about EU law that emerge from Northern Ireland.
It is also expected to involve the creation of red and green lanes for imports, with British goods destined purely for Northern Ireland avoiding customs checks via the green lane, while those destined for the Republic of Ireland will undergo checks in the red lane.
Under the current protocol, Northern Ireland remains subject to some EU subsidy and taxation laws, including on VAT, but these powers are expected to be repatriated to Westminster. However, EU sources have said this will come with “strings attached” to ensure the integrity of the EU single market.
It is expected that the Northern Ireland Assembly will be given a right of consultation on new EU laws affecting the province, but it is not yet clear whether it will have concrete powers to disapply them.
Leaked government legal advice, seen by The Sunday Times, revealed that the Bill would still leave the UK with “an international law obligation ... to comply with any ruling” of the ECJ on Northern Ireland.
EU officials and diplomats claimed nothing had been altered in the protocol, which Brussels had always said it would not renegotiate. Instead, the new Brexit deal will be a series of agreements that will sit separately to the unchanged protocol, they suggested.
“The chances of a reopening or superseding of the protocol are zero,” an EU official told The Telegraph. “If there are legal changes to the treaty, the European Commission hasn’t told us yet. It would seem like something [EU negotiator Maros] Sefcovic would need some buy-in for from member states before he could agree to it.”
On Saturday, Mr Sunak was accused of a “cynical” plan to “abuse” the position of the King by using him to promote the Government’s Brexit deal. The DUP said an aborted plan to get King Charles to meet Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, reflected either “naivety or desperation”.