Tory Eurosceptics poised to vote against Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal

Rishi Sunak - Leon Neal/PA
Rishi Sunak - Leon Neal/PA

Tory Eurosceptics are ready to vote against Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal on Wednesday, warning that its central plank is “likely to be useless in practice”.

The Prime Minister is braced for the largest Commons rebellion of his premiership on the back of a stinging verdict from the European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative MPs.

Eight senior backbenchers have told The Telegraph they cannot support the Windsor Framework, with sources saying as many as two dozen could rebel.

Members of the ERG will gather on Wednesday morning to decide whether to oppose the deal en masse when it comes before MPs in the afternoon.

It came after the group published a damning legal analysis of the deal Mr Sunak struck with the EU to end the Northern Ireland border standoff.

The report, drawn up by a “star chamber” of lawyers and MPs, has concluded that the agreement falls short of what the Prime Minister promised.

His central claim that the agreement fundamentally rewrites the Northern Ireland Protocol is “not correct”, according to the report, which says the original deal “remains intact”.

It concluded that Northern Ireland is still largely subject to the EU’s laws and its court, and the deal does not fully restore its place in the Union.

The “star chamber” said the “green lane”, under which goods will be able to travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland virtually checks-free, was “misleadingly characterised”.

It was most critical of the “Stormont brake” mechanism, which the Government says will give Belfast powers to block new EU laws from applying in Northern Ireland.

It said the veto mechanism has so many conditions attached that it “is of very narrow application in theory and is likely to be useless in practice”.

ERG lawyers also voiced fears that the deal “risks incentivising future governments to copy future EU rules” rather than diverge and risk new Irish Sea trade barriers.

David Jones, the group’s vice-chairman and a former Brexit minister, became the second senior Tory MP to publicly reveal he will vote against it.

“It’s creating a situation where the UK could be subject to all the obligations of EU membership without any benefits, and there’s no purpose in doing that,” he told The Telegraph. “Frankly, this whole framework is very flawed and all the flaws in the Government’s argument should be considered.

“It is playing fast and loose with the House to expect a short debate on one element of the framework to be sufficient for the purposes of giving us the scrutiny we are entitled to.”

James Duddridge, a former trade minister, told The Telegraph on Monday that he would also oppose the agreement.

Six more Eurosceptic MPs confirmed privately that they are set to rebel against the Government, which has imposed a three-line whip for the vote. One senior Tory backbencher said the report made “damning reading” and they were now going to vote against the deal.

Separately, Greg Smith, the MP for Buckingham, told The Telegraph: “The test in my mind is even if it’s not perfect, does it move us forward from the provisions of the protocol as per the Withdrawal Agreement?

“From what I heard, and from my first reading of their report, the answer to that is that this is status quo at best, potentially a step backwards.”

Government whips were texting backbenchers on Tuesday night in a sign of Downing Street nerves about the potential size of a rebellion. While Number 10 has won around some leading Brexiteers, it is braced for big name opposition including by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Tory leader.

Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary who is a former ERG chairman, said the deal was “not perfect” but represented a “massive improvement”.

He told the European scrutiny committee it was “genuinely worth voting for” and represents an “important opportunity for a turning point for Northern Ireland”.

Labour has said it will support the deal, so there is no chance of it failing to pass, but Number 10 will be determined not to have to rely on opposition votes.

Mr Sunak has a working majority of 66, meaning he needs to contain any rebellion to fewer than 34 of his own backbenchers to avoid such a headache.