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27 February 2023

Will a Northern Ireland Protocol deal make or break Rishi Sunak?

If the Prime Minister is forced to rely on Labour votes it will be a major blow to his authority.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Rishi Sunak will today host Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, in Berkshire following a weekend of intense talks on Brexit between the UK and the EU. It is anticipated that a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol, which sets out trading rules for the province, will be formally signed off. Sunak will then chair a meeting of the cabinet before heading to a joint press conference with Von der Leyen, and then making a statement in the Commons.

According to the Times, the government is already claiming Sunak has won “significant and far-reaching” concessions from the European Union, including amendments to the withdrawal agreement. It is thought that Northern Ireland may still need to follow future EU rules, but that such legislation would only be imposed after consultation with London and Belfast.

The main sticking point as far as Tory Brexiteers and the DUP are concerned is the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which will remain the ultimate arbiter in any disputes over how single market rules apply in Northern Ireland. Sunak will hope to win over the hard-liners with a concession that means cases would not be directly referred to the ECJ by Brussels.

[See also: Can Rishi Sunak solve the Brexit Schleswig-Holstein question?]

There is no legal requirement for a Commons vote, but Sunak told MPs last week that parliament would be able to “express its view” on the deal. And after a flurry of reports that Euro-sceptics were prepared to trigger an emergency debate, Downing Street appears to have accepted that the political sensitivity of Brexit means there must be a vote among MPs.

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This might not be imminent, however, as No 10 is keen to give MPs time to digest the deal’s small-print. Sunak is reported to be open to one-to-one discussions with influential backbenchers.

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With Labour already having made it clear that its MPs will vote with the government, there is no risk that a deal will not win the approval of the Commons. But if the agreement only passes thanks to opposition votes, it will be a major blow to Sunak’s authority within his own party.

Boris Johnson, who has already voiced his disapproval at the potential scrapping of his controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, clearly wants revenge on the politician he thinks brought him down. But it is not 2016 any more: it is 2023, and the political picture has been transformed. The Conservatives are languishing behind Labour in the polls and surveys suggest that now, most Britons regret leaving the EU. We have seen before how quickly a PM’s Brexit deal can fall apart. But if Rishi Sunak can please the right of his party and face down his arch rival Johnson, it will be hailed as the biggest achievement of his premiership so far.

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

[See also: How will Keir Starmer fund his “national missions” for Labour Britain?]