Rishi Sunak is pressing to seal a deal with Brussels on post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade rules early this week, rejecting calls from Boris Johnson, his predecessor as prime minister, to take a more confrontational approach.
Sunak’s officials held talks with their Brussels counterparts on Sunday on how to give Northern Ireland politicians a say in the application of EU law in the region, addressing a “democratic deficit”.
British officials said there were still “hard yards” ahead in the talks, but Sunak hopes to agree a deal and confront Johnson and other Tory Eurosceptics with the result as early as Tuesday.
“He’s focused on securing a deal that works for the people of Northern Ireland,” said one ally, noting that “really good progress” had been made in settling the bitter post-Brexit dispute with Brussels.
Sunak hopes that a deal will restart Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, which is currently boycotted by the pro-UK Democratic Unionist party, and transform relations with the EU.
UK officials left open the possibility of a breakthrough on Tuesday or possibly Wednesday. Cabinet ministers would be asked to approve the deal, which would then probably be laid out in a command paper and presented to parliament.
Although Downing Street says an agreement would not “technically” have to be put to a House of Commons vote, senior Tories expect MPs to have a say, with all eyes on Johnson and Tory MPs in the pro-Brexit European Research Group.
Johnson intervened in the dispute on Sunday, warning Sunak that it would be a “great mistake” to ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would allow ministers to unilaterally override the 2020 Brexit treaty with the EU.
The bill, tabled by Johnson and described by one senior EU official as “a loaded gun on the table”, is on hold in the House of Lords, and Brussels expects it to be dropped as part of a deal.
Sunak’s allies said the bill would not be needed if the deal to reform the protocol resulted in a better outcome. They said the legislative measure might not be axed, but could be left to die quietly at the end of the parliamentary session.
One senior Tory said Johnson was guilty of “hypocrisy”, given that, as prime minister in December 2020, he dropped a threat to break international law from the UK Internal Market Bill in a deal with the EU over the implementation of the Brexit agreement.
George Osborne, former Tory chancellor, told Channel 4’s Andrew Neil on Sunday that Johnson was “interested in becoming PM again” and would use any instrument to hit Sunak “over the head”.
The pro-Brexit cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt said on Sunday that any deal had to be backed by the DUP, which has set out seven tests for assessing a deal.
Sunak believes his deal will meet those tests, which include no border in the Irish Sea and no checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which remains in the EU’s single market for goods.
A big focus is now on the DUP’s fourth test, which party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has described as giving “the people of Northern Ireland a say in making the laws that govern them”. Sunak’s allies confirmed this was “an important part of what we are trying to fix”.
Brussels has suggested establishing “structured dialogues between Northern Ireland stakeholders” — including the Stormont assembly — and the European Commission.
Officials have talked about early consultation on legislative changes. A decision that left Northern Ireland paying tariffs on some steel imports from Great Britain could have been avoided with better co-ordination, one said.
But updates to the more than 300 single market regulations in force at the time of Brexit apply automatically. While Belfast’s views will be taken into account, no one in Brussels has countenanced giving it a veto.
Sunak, who held talks with EU leaders at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday said no deal was yet done, adding: “We need to find solutions to the practical problems that the protocol is causing families and business in Northern Ireland, as well as address the democratic deficit.”
Edwin Poots, a former DUP leader, called the protocol in its current form “the antithesis to democracy”. In a recent interview with the FT, Poots said the democratic deficit was a major concern for unionists.