Tory Brexiteers demand Commons vote on Northern Ireland protocol deal

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Rishi Sunak (PA)
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Rishi Sunak (PA)

Tory Brexiteers are urging Rishi Sunak to allow a vote on any compromise agreement struck with the EU to end the row over the Northern Ireland protocol.

No 10 is thought to be close to a deal with Brussels to avoid routine checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and to reduce the power of European judges in protocol disputes.

But Mr Sunak faces an uphill battle to win over the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Tory hardliners in the European Research Group (ERG), who remain opposed to a compromise that leaves the protocol in place.

ERG deputy chair David Jones MP told The Independent that a Commons vote would be necessary – opening up the prospect of a return to the big parliamentary battles seen in the run-up to Brexit.

“There would probably need to be a vote in the House of Commons. It is something parliament should opine on,” said Mr Jones, who expects widespread opposition from the Tory party to any compromise that maintains separate rules for Britain and Northern Ireland.

“On this issue, our views and those of the DUP are indistinguishable,” the Brexiteer added. “It’s not just the ERG. A lot of party colleagues felt strongly that the sovereignty issue has to be addressed properly.”

Reports suggest that a technical agreement on customs is close to being done, based on UK proposals for “green” and “red” lanes. The system would allow goods to flow unimpeded from Britain to Northern Ireland, while goods set for export to the Republic of Ireland would be checked in Northern Irish ports.

Brussels has also made concessions on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) so that it could rule on protocol issues only if a case was referred on by Northern Irish courts, according to The Times.

But Tory Brexiteers are unhappy at the prospect of any role for the ECJ. “You can’t have a foreign court exercising jurisdiction in your country. It’s fundamentally wrong. Why should there be any need for the Northern Irish courts to refer anything to the ECJ?” said Mr Jones.

Asked about the idea of compromise on customs checks, the former Tory cabinet minister added: “The protocol is constitutionally damaging to the UK as a whole. Anything that does not address the democratic deficit thrown up by the protocol will not be acceptable.”

No 10 has moved to quash speculation that a “technical” deal is all but done and awaiting political sign-off, insisting that negotiators are still engaged in intensive “scoping” work.

Senior figures in the DUP and the ERG, who have been meeting ministers to urge them to press for the end of all protocol checks, have also been told that the two sides are not yet close to a deal.

“I think the prime minister understands that to come up with an agreement that doesn’t have buy-in from the DUP is ultimately futile, because they will refuse to reconstitute the [Stormont] institutions,” said Mr Jones.

The protocol was agreed in 2019 as a way to unlock the logjam over Brexit, providing for checks on goods to be carried out at a theoretical border in the Irish Sea in order to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. But many unionists are vehemently opposed to arrangements they claim have weakened the region’s place within the union.

Despite the prospect of Tory rebellion in the Commons, Sir Keir Starmer has suggested that Labour MPs would be whipped to support any final agreement that emerges from the talks in the weeks ahead.

During a visit to Northern Ireland last month, the Labour leader said he was willing to give Mr Sunak “political cover” if he achieved a compromise in the national interest – urging the PM to stand up to the “Brexit purity cult” inside his own party.

Former Tory leader William Hague has urged Tory MPs to get ready to “back a deal” with the EU over the protocol in order to move on from the rows over Brexit “rather than insisting on a perfect outcome”.

Downing Street officials would not be drawn on whether Mr Sunak plans to put any protocol agreement with the EU to a vote in parliament.

Mujtaba Rahman, a Brexit analyst at the Eurasia Group, said No 10 may try to avoid a vote. The expert said a deal could be forged without any change to existing legal texts, through a separate document agreeing on how to interpret the protocol.

“A declaration that clarifies how the protocol would be applied on the ground would be one way to do it. The bureaucracy is unclear at the moment, but politically you could see why they would want to avoid a vote,” he said.

“The big challenge is the role of the European Court of Justice,” added Mr Rahman. “It’s the UK that is going to have to do the most moving, because ultimately the protocol is based on EU law. Whether Sunak can get enough to sell it to the ERG and others is the big question.”