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20 February 2023

Boris Johnson’s intervention on Brexit is really aimed at Rishi Sunak

The former PM’s warning over the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has been timed to cause maximum difficulty for his replacement.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Talks to break the post-Brexit deadlock over trading rules in Northern Ireland are rumbling on, as Rishi Sunak weighs up how to compromise with the EU.

Details of a potential deal have begun to leak out and it has emerged that the Prime Minister could be prepared to scrap Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – a move that would allow the European Court of Justice to retain a role in handling disputes over trade in Northern Ireland.

Both prospects are, of course, red flags for Tory Brexiteers – and that is before the PM grapples with the question of how to keep the DUP on board. Up to now, the unionist party has been relatively quiet about the negotiations. Sunak has been warned that as many as 100 Conservative MPs could be prepared to rebel, and Johnson has said it would “be a great mistake” to scrap his legislation, according to a source close to the former prime minister, in his first major intervention on Brexit since departing Downing Street.

Simon Clarke, who was Liz Truss’s levelling-up secretary and a minister under Johnson when the protocol was negotiated, has vowed that he will not back “anything that keeps Northern Ireland subject to EU law or in the single market”.

[See also: A Brexit truce won’t last for long]

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It is not clear which way Sunak will jump, but the chances of keeping all sides happy seem slender. The deadline of announcing a deal today ahead of a Commons vote tomorrow has already slipped, and pressure on the PM is building. The European Research Group of Tory back-bench eurosceptics is due to meet on Tuesday.

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Labour has said it will support the government, but getting a deal through parliament by relying on the votes of opposition MPs could fatally weaken Sunak. And any agreement that sees the DUP refuse to resume power sharing in Stormont will be regarded as a failure. No 10 has argued that the deal meets the DUP’s demands – but Sunak must fear that nothing will satisfy the Conservative right and the allies of his former boss.

As George Osborne claimed on Channel 4’s The Andrew Neil Show on 19 February, Johnson, who deeply resented being ousted, “wants to bring down Sunak and he will use any instrument to do it”.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: On the Northern Ireland protocol Rishi Sunak must win over the DUP and his own party]