Rishi Sunak is preparing to confront his Tory critics and press ahead with reforms to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade rules, with allies saying the vast majority of Tory MPs just want to get the issue settled.
The UK prime minister spoke to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, on Friday in a fresh bid to reach a deal, with speculation growing that it could be announced very soon.
EU officials said the call was “positive”, while British officials said “positive breakthroughs” had been secured. Officials close to the talks said Sunak could even sign a deal over the weekend or on Monday.
Downing Street declined to comment on the timing, but a key Sunak ally said: “We know almost 300 of our MPs just want to do this – they’ve had enough.”
Downing Street is keeping a close eye on around 60 Tory MPs, out of a total of 355, who have expressed concerns about the shape of the deal with Brussels.
Much depends on whether the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland will respond positively to – or at least not immediately reject – the Sunak deal. Party chiefs estimate at least 30 potential Tory defectors could back the deal with DUP cover.
Sunak wants to secure last-minute amendments to the text of a deal to try to win over the DUP and persuade it to return to the Stormont power-sharing executive.
Downing Street said talks with the EU had “stepped up in the last week and progress was good with some positive breakthroughs”.
Tory MPs were put on a three-line whip to attend parliament on Monday, although party sources insisted this was standard procedure on a busy legislative day in parliament. Cabinet ministers could be briefed at the weekend, according to Tory officials.
Sunak does not need to call a Commons vote on reforms to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of former prime minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal, but he may decide to hold one anyway.
In any case, he wants Tory MPs to make a show of strength by backing a deal that would aim to improve the situation in Northern Ireland and sharply strengthen Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Sunak and von der Leyen discuss a political statement on the implementation of the protocol, which would cut border controls, increase democratic scrutiny and limit the role of the European Court of Justice.
A “green lane” with minimal controls would be created at Irish Sea ports for goods traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland if they were to remain in the region. A ‘red lane’ will be created for goods traveling to the Republic of Ireland and the single market.
Control over issues including VAT and state aid will be exercised from London rather than Brussels. The joint committees will oversee the new dispute management arrangements.
Since Mr Sunack presented the general deal to the DUP last week, party leader Sir Geoffrey Donaldson has made new demands. He says the deal should include changes to the treaty, not just a political statement.
Donaldson also wants Northern Irish companies to be allowed to produce products to UK standards, rather than EU rules, for export to the UK market. Under the protocol, the region is part of the EU’s single market for goods.
James Cleverley, the foreign secretary, said on Friday that the British government’s priority was to win over the DUP, although Donaldson’s party said it would take time to scrutinize the legal details of a deal.
“When, hopefully, we resolve these issues, then I would hope that the DUP would acknowledge that we have addressed their concerns,” Smart told Times Radio. “Until we address those concerns, we’re not going to sign the deal.”
Among the Tory MPs likely to cause trouble for Sunak is Johnson, who wants to press ahead with legislation that would unilaterally scrap the protocol.
Northern Ireland politicians were expected to attend a rally in Omagh on Saturday, where a senior police officer was shot and seriously injured on Wednesday night. The attack, by suspected republican dissidents, is not believed to be linked to the protocol but has stunned the region and revived chilling memories of its three-decade conflict.
A DUP spokesman said: “If we get this wrong, we will hand over the next generation to further division and I doubt very much, if this is wrong, that the Northern Ireland Assembly will ever be resurrected.”