New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
  2. Brexit
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]

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

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.

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]

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy