Home Secretary Suella Braverman has hinted that Rishi Sunak should not abandon the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in his bid for a deal to break the deadlock, as hopes faded that a deal could be reached by Tuesday.
Braverman, former chair of the hard Brexiteers’ European Research Group (ERG), expressed caution over plans to freeze the bill. The legislation would allow the UK to unilaterally override the protocol. Sunak is prepared to withdraw the bill if an agreement is reached on changes.
In the first hint of cabinet tensions, Braverman told the BBC: “We have known for some time the challenges related to trade, customs and sovereignty when it comes to Northern Ireland and the NI protocol.
“The legislation introduced by the Government is one of the biggest tools we have to solve the problem in the Irish Sea. It is clear and right that the Prime Minister is committed to finding a realistic solution to these issues affecting the people of Northern Ireland and that we are finding a solution that is realistic and workable for both the EU and the UK.”
Democratic Unionist politicians have suggested a deal to resolve the post-Brexit impasse in Northern Ireland is unlikely to happen this week.
Sammy Wilson, who speaks on Brexit issues for the DUP, reiterated his pledge that a Sunak deal with the EU without the party’s consent would mean a continued boycott of Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly.
Asked if he expected there to be a consensus this week, Wilson told Sky News: “No, I don’t.” There were, he said, still “dams and hills to climb” for Sunak. The government, Wilson said, “went into these negotiations with an almost defeatist attitude.”
After talks with the EU last week, Downing Street had hoped to present a deal on Monday, with a Commons vote on Tuesday. However, this is looking increasingly unlikely.
Adding to the headache for No 10 was an intervention at the weekend by Boris Johnson, who urged Sunak not to reject the controversial bill, which could unilaterally destroy part of the original plan for Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade deals agreed by the former prime minister.
Wilson welcomed Johnson’s efforts, saying the UK needed “as much leverage as it can get” in talks with the EU. He said: “If the former prime minister is now saying he thinks that’s a good tactic too, then we welcome that. and I hope the government listens to it.”
The next few days were “a historic moment” for Sunak, Wilson added: “He has to choose: is he the prime minister of the whole of the United Kingdom or is he the prime minister of part of the United Kingdom, who is ready to give up another party to the demands of The European Union;”.
Micheál Martin, Ireland’s tánaiste, or deputy prime minister, said there was a need to focus on how to get a deal and that the people of Northern Ireland had “had enough of people playing politics with their future”.
“People had legitimate concerns about the functioning of the protocol,” he said in Brussels, where he is attending a meeting of the EU’s foreign affairs council.
“There has been a very honest and meaningful attempt to resolve these concerns by the UK negotiating team with the EU negotiating team. I think we should allow that to take place and come to fruition over the next period and then we should focus on the needs of the people”.
Conservative pro-Brexit MPs, particularly those from the ERG, are increasingly uneasy at the idea of concessions being made in Brussels to reach a deal, including the prospect of withdrawing the Northern Ireland Protocol bill.
Simon Clarke, who was a minister under Johnson and rising secretary to Liz Truss, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that it would be wrong to reject the bill.
“We should go ahead with our bill to fix the protocol here in Westminster because it is absolutely a tactical imperative, to give our negotiators the strongest hand to play with Brussels and also because the protocol legislation may well be the cleanest way to solve this problem. .”
Some Tory MPs have insisted a deal is impossible without the consent of the DUP, warning Mr Sunack against the idea of seeking to push a deal through the Commons in the face of party opposition.
Bernard Jenkin, a veteran Eurosceptic Tory MP, told Times Radio: “If he doesn’t get the support of both communities in Northern Ireland, he will only make things worse because he will cement a deal that has destroyed Northern Ireland’s power sharing.
“I recognize there is progress in the negotiations and so is the DUP, but if we can’t sort out some fundamental principles then there will be no power-sharing and we can’t have a deal with the EU.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a cabinet minister under Johnson and Truss, told Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday night that the DUP’s opinion “is fundamental to this”.
He said: “You need to integrate the DUP first and then go talk to Brussels instead of trying to bounce the DUP because the DUP don’t respond well to bounce.”