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27 February 2023

Can Sunak’s Brexit breakthrough unite the Tory party?

The opposition to the Windsor Framework will not come from Labour. It will come from the Prime Minister’s own backbenchers.

By Freddie Hayward

Rishi Sunak’s agreement with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol is the first major achievement of his premiership. The deal signals the largest step so far in the normalisation of relations between the EU and the UK since the referendum in 2016. The agreement – named the Windsor Framework – will scrap the checks on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, ensure the supply of medicines, and give Stormont a say on EU rules.

Sunak’s decision to pause the Boris Johnson-era legislation that would have overridden the protocol, as well as dropping the bombastic tone of his predecessors, created the conditions in which the EU felt comfortable striking a deal. That tactic has been supported by a renewed sense of cooperation in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. The deal means the EU has now dropped legal action against the UK. The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has also said the process of the UK joining the EU’s scientific research programme, Horizon, can now begin.

All of this is an achievement. But the key question was never whether Sunak could reach an agreement with the EU. The story of Brexit since 2016 has always been the struggle between the prime minister – all five of them – and the Conservative parliamentary party. That has not changed. Now there is a deal agreed with the EU, Sunak needs to secure the backing of MPs. Opposition to the framework will not come from Labour, which has said it would vote for the deal. Opposition will come from Sunak’s own backbenchers.

The size of that rebellion depends largely on the reaction of the DUP. The hard-line Tory Brexiteer MPs of the European Research Group have strapped themselves to that Northern Irish Unionist party. Without the commitment of the DUP to rejoin the Stormont executive, some Conservative MPs might claim the protocol still undermines the Good Friday Agreement. Both groups will now carefully read the details of what Sunak has negotiated and consider their next steps.

The stakes for Sunak are high. Boris Johnson is exploiting the disunity in the Tory party over the protocol to position himself for a return to the top job. A small rebellion may scupper Johnson’s chances of toppling his former chancellor. A large, noisy one could bolster them.

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With the support of Labour’s 196 MPs, the Windsor Agreement is unlikely to fall in the House of Commons. But regardless of its successful passage through parliament, it is the deal’s detail that will dictate whether a government in Northern Ireland is restored and whether a rebellion to Sunak’s authority can be staved off.

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