Sunak and von der Leyen share ‘positive’ call, boosting protocol deal chances
Rishi Sunak is closing in on announcing a new post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland after holding a “positive” call with the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen ahead of an expected meeting.
The Prime Minister and the European Commission president are likely to hold in-person talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol this weekend, sources told the PA news agency.
Securing a deal would set up a possible clash with Conservative Brexit hardliners, with Tory MPs being ordered to be in Parliament on a three-line whip on Monday.
Mr Sunak has promised that Parliament will be able to “express its view” over any deal, which he hopes will get the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland.
But he would come under intense pressure if he does not give them an explicit vote, amid fears there could be a rebellion.
A deal had been hoped for this week but Downing Street said on Friday that “intensive discussions” with the EU were ongoing.
But the likelihood of an announcement was boosted after sources in London and Brussels described the call between the Prime Minister and Ms von der Leyen as “positive”.
A Downing Street source said there had been “good progress”.
No 10 sources confirmed that Mr Sunak on Friday also had “constructive engagement” with supermarket bosses and “fast parcel operators”, along with other businesses, about the protocol and the issues he is attempting to fix.
Cabinet ministers have been put on alert for a possible conference call over the weekend, according to The Times.
Unusually, Downing Street declined to set out Mr Sunak’s plans for the weekend, only saying that he was working in No 10 on Friday.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly indicated that ministers will not sign off on a deal over the protocol with Brussels until the DUP’s concerns are addressed.
The protocol – signed by Boris Johnson in 2020 – was designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland after Brexit.
But unionists have been incensed by the trade barriers it has created between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Mr Cleverly told Times Radio: “The things they’re concerned about, the things we’re concerned about, are absolutely in alignment and we are focused on resolving all the issues that need resolving.
“Some of them are technical trade issues and very complicated and some of them are really simple but important principles, like Northern Ireland’s place as an integral part of the United Kingdom. And that sense of sovereignty, the importance of a democratic voice.
“So when, hopefully, we get those issues resolved, then I would hope that the DUP would recognise that we’ve addressed their concerns and until we have addressed those concerns we’re not going to sign off on the deal.”
However, when asked again whether the Government would not press ahead with a deal not backed by the DUP, he said: “No, what I’ve said is we’ve got to make sure that the issues they’ve highlighted are addressed.”
The DUP has issued seven tests to win its backing for any deal, including addressing what it calls the “democratic deficit” meaning the nation is subject to EU rules.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson declined to say whether he would back any new deal negotiated by his successor Mr Sunak in the latest sign he could face a rebellion on the Tory backbenches.
Instead, the former prime minister backed as the best solution his Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which could effectively rip up parts of the agreement he brokered.
Mr Johnson told Sky News: “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 Downing Street spokesman responded: “Negotiations are continuing so there isn’t a finalised deal for people to take a judgment on.”