UK's Johnson says 'difficult' to back new N.Irish Brexit deal

Former UK prime minister Boris Johnson said Thursday he would find it "very difficult" to vote for successor Rishi Sunak's new EU deal overhauling post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland.

Johnson, whose supporters accuse Sunak of betrayal for having helped force the former leader out last year, broke his silence after the breakthrough deal was announced on Monday.

"I'm going to find it very difficult to vote for something like this myself, because I believed we should've done something very different," Johnson said in a speech in London.

"This is not about the UK taking back control," he said.

"This is the EU graciously unbending to allow us to do what we want to do in our own country, not by our laws, but by theirs."

As prime minister, Johnson rammed through the old "Northern Ireland Protocol" in his rush to withdraw Britain from the EU.

He admitted in his speech that that set of trading rules, now supplanted by Sunak's deal, had proved problematic, although he also blamed the EU's "onerous" checks on goods entering Northern Ireland.

He insisted on his preference to maintain legislation that he introduced, imposing a unilateral overhaul of the rules without EU consent, even at the risk of a trade war.

"I have no doubt at all that that (legislation) is what brought the EU to negotiate seriously," he claimed, after Sunak confirmed he was scrapping the bill.

The new "Windsor Framework" has been generally well received and is expected to win any vote in parliament with the support of the main Labour opposition.

But Sunak will be eager to secure the backing of the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, and, to a lesser extent, Johnson -- who retains a following among hardline Brexiteers.

- 'Lies' -

The Windsor Framework reduces the influence of EU law in Northern Ireland, and creates a new "green lane" for goods coming from Britain but not intended to go on to the EU's single market via Ireland.

The DUP says it will take its time in studying the deal, having refused for a year now to re-enter a power-sharing government in Belfast, in part because of its dislike of the old protocol.

Johnson said the agreement risked keeping Northern Ireland in the EU's regulatory orbit and would prove "a drag anchor on divergence" from EU rules for the UK as a whole.

Doing things differently from Brussels "is the point of Brexit", he said, vowing to keep fighting for "what I think of as Brexit".

Responding to the speech, Sunak's spokesman said the prime minister "understands that people will have questions and opinions relating to the Windsor Framework".

"But he believes this is the best deal for the people of Northern Ireland and for businesses in Northern Ireland."

The deal was adopted on Monday by Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at a meeting in Windsor, west of London.

In an interview with Britain's LBC radio, Von der Leyen's predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker expressed regret for not having publicly repudiated Johnson's "lies" about the EU during the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Back then, he said, he took the advice of the then prime minister David Cameron to stay out of the fraught debate, "because he was telling me, 'Jean-Claude, listen, the Commission is very unpopular in Britain'".