Rishi Sunak has been warned that more than 100 Tory MPs could rebel over a deal with the EU to help break the post-Brexit deadlock in Northern Ireland, as Boris Johnson launched a major intervention calling on him to take a harder line with Brussels.
Pressure on the prime minister is mounting as government sources said tense talks in Downing Street over the weekend on a review of the Northern Ireland protocol had yet to produce significant progress.
They warned that the expected timetable for a deal to be announced on Monday and a Commons vote on Tuesday was at risk of slipping. One insider said: “We are ready to go,” but claimed nervousness about the opposition Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Tory supporters was to blame for the delay.
There was a backlash on Sunday over leaked details of concessions said to have been made by the UK and Brussels’ demand that Sunak reject a controversial bill designed to unilaterally overturn some Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland.
In Johnson’s first statement on Brexit since leaving office, a source close to him said he believed it would be “a big mistake” to abandon the legislation and hinted that it should be retained as a lever on the EU.
James Dundridge, a former Brexit minister and close ally of the former prime minister, said the debate over retaining a role for the European Court of Justice would also be a “wedge” in delivering Brexit.
“It won’t just be the so-called ‘Spartans’,” he told Sky News, referring to the nickname given to the few dozen hard-line purists. “There will be a large number of pro-Brexiters, probably the majority of the parliamentary party, and probably in triple figures.”
There is no formal requirement for a vote to be held, but Downing Street is considering holding out given concerns they could end up being forced out – and would win regardless of Labour’s commitment to back any deal.
Hours after Johnson’s intervention, other Tories quickly rallied to his side. David Frost, the UK’s former chief Brexit negotiator, stressed there was “no deadline” for talks to revise the protocol. He said Sunak should “proceed with the protocol bill so that our negotiators are in the strongest possible position.”
Simon Clarke, the former leveling secretary, indicated he would not support “something that keeps Northern Ireland subject to EU law or the single market” and said the protocol bill “remains a clean solution to ensure that all parts of our country are treated equally.”
Dozens of MPs from the hardline group of Brexiters known as the European Research Group plan to meet on Tuesday to discuss details of any concessions said to have been made by the UK, the Guardian understands.
Despite widespread dismay at Johnson’s intervention among his critics in the party, Penny Mordaunt, the Commons leader, claimed she was “not completely useless”. He said, “Boris is Boris” and hinted that it was “to help remind” the EU of the controversial protocol bill. Although Mordaunt said there were “hopeful signs”, she added: “Both sides of the negotiations have said we’re not there yet.”
But some Tories want Sunak to keep the legislation on hold. Robert Buckland, a former justice minister, told the Guardian there was “a narrow legal argument” for the bill when it was going through parliament last year. But he added: “Now that the negotiations are real and moving forward, I think the situation has changed significantly. The bill is a dead letter.”
Others dismissed Johnson’s remarks on Brexit. George Osborne, the former chancellor, said Johnson was only interested in “being prime minister again”.
Osborne told Channel 4’s Andrew Neil Show: “He wants to bring Sunak down and he will use any instrument to do it… If the Northern Ireland negotiations are that instrument, he will pick it up and hit Sunak over the head ».
Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance party, also accused Johnson of thinking about himself rather than the protocol’s legacy. “He created this mess – he needs to sit it out,” he said.
The DUP has remained silent since its meeting with Sunack in Belfast on Friday, after which its leader warned the plan being proposed “currently falls short of what would be acceptable”.
While Downing Street believes its approach meets the DUP’s seven tests, it fears a three-pronged attack from the party, Johnson’s supporters and the ERG.
A source familiar with the negotiations said No 10 was keeping the talks as secret as possible because “there would be piranha frenzy on both sides as soon as something killer came out and there was a chance of a deal”.