Brexiteer hardliners who were threatening to revolt over Rishi Sunak’s new deal with the EU will decide how to respond in a meeting on Tuesday night, while a key Boris Johnson ally has attacked those already enthusiastic about the deal.
In a sign that he was prepared to confront his critics, the prime minister said parliamentarians would vote “at the appropriate time” on the details of their agreement to review Northern Ireland’s arrangements for customs and jurisdiction over the law of the EU, known as the Windsor Framework.
Conservative MPs or the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were not quick to accept or denounce the deal, with both groups expected to take several days to decide how to respond.
But the threat of a critical intervention from Johnson remains, as Sunak was expected to drop a controversial bill introduced by the former prime minister that would have overturned the old protocol.
Some of the old Brexit “Spartans” who helped oust Theresa May for her deal in 2019 are now in government, including Steve Baker. He gave a thumbs up after leaving Downing Street on Sunday night, taken as a sign of approval of Sunak’s deal, which was formally unveiled the following day.
Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries criticized Baker for “gushing about the deal”, claiming he was a “key agitator” who helped drive Johnson out of Downing Street last July. She said: “What shred of credibility he has left would be destroyed if he spoke out against Sunak. He has nowhere else to go but to smile and support.”
Johnson has urged Sunak not to abandon his protocol bill, which prompted a legal challenge from the EU. But the prime minister is facing pressure to do so from top European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, with whom he is expected to meet to discuss measures to tackle people smuggling across the English Channel on small boats. .
Any rebellion may end up being small, conservative strategists believe. Hardline Brexiters, including former UK negotiator David Frost and former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, have so far refrained from making critical interventions on the status of the deal based on last week’s reports. But even a dozen Conservative MPs who oppose the deal could spell bigger problems for Sunak down the road.
Anand Menon, director of the UK think tank on Changing Europe, said: “The danger for the prime minister is that the opposition could be cumulative. Some rebels in the protocol, some more in the budget: all this could turn into a real headache if the local elections in May go wrong.
The European Research Group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs will meet on Tuesday night to discuss how to vote, with a ‘star chamber’ of lawyers meeting to examine plans for a Stormont veto on new EU laws in Northern Ireland .
Although the ERG has pledged to stay “on par” with the DUP, several members privately told The Guardian that they generally supported Sunak’s deal. “As long as the details live up to the press conference, fundamentally, I think this sounds like something they should be able to live with,” said one. Another said that he believed only about 10 headbangers were “prepared to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Sunak downplayed the importance of any rebellion. Speaking at a press conference with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, on Monday, he said: “Ultimately, this is not necessarily about me, this is not about politicians. It’s about the people of Northern Ireland. It’s about what’s best for them.”