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1 February 2023

Boris Johnson could still scupper Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal

The Prime Minister’s weakness against Tory backbenchers remains the biggest obstacle to his reported agreement with the EU on post-Brexit trade.

By Rachel Wearmouth

A report in the Times last night (31 January) suggests there have been significant breakthroughs in the long quest to resolve post-Brexit trading rules in Northern Ireland. According to the article, a customs arrangement has been finalised that avoids the need for checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, while goods for onward export to Ireland will be checked at ports.

The EU is also said to have made a key concession on legal disputes, with cases only dealt with by the European Court of Justice if they have been referred by a court in Northern Ireland. Rishi Sunak is believed to have agreed the customs plan in January but wanted to hold off as he feared the deal could fall apart if he was unable sell the plan to the Democratic Unionist Party and Tory Brexiteers.

It means the Northern Ireland protocol could be solved before the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April. But, as ever with Brexit, the deal and the Prime Minister’s fate still lie in the hands of those Conservative Brexiteers. How Boris Johnson reacts is also key.

The former PM left office reluctantly last year, and wanted to return when Liz Truss resigned shortly after. A Johnson-led rebellion against the government’s EU deal would pose a major threat to Sunak’s authority.

Johnson used the anniversary of Brexit yesterday to tell people on Twitter to “shrug off all this negativity and gloom-mongering” – and reminded them about the success of the vaccine rollout to boot. He is also getting bolder with his attacks. Last night in an interview with Fox News, he criticised Sunak for not sending fighter jets to Ukraine.

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Keir Starmer offered Sunak cold comfort when he said in January that Labour will back a deal in order to get it through parliament if Brexiteers dig in.

Sunak likes to be seen as a problem solver and may jump at the chance to face down Eurosceptics, given he is increasingly seen as weak. But relying on opposition votes at a time when backbenchers eyeing the polls have little incentive to remain disciplined is a gamble that could allow appetites for Conservative dissent to grow.

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

[See also: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?]