You should feel sorry for Boris Johnson. He had it all planned out: voice concerns about the government’s plan for a deal with the EU about Northern Ireland, stoke opposition when the details were released, and then ride in behind as the rebels’ champion. He even contacted the DUP, after reports it would back the deal on Monday (27 February), to encourage the party to be cautious, according to PoliticsHome‘s Adam Payne.
Alas, the Times reports this morning (1 March) that “allies” of Johnson have said he will support the government’s deal because “he doesn’t want to be an outlier on this. If he ends up voting with 12 to 15 other people he will look silly.” Heaven forbid Johnson looks silly.
Part of the problem for the former PM is that the Windsor framework is an improvement on the deal he struck in 2019 – regardless of whether you think it goes far enough on issues such as sovereignty. Convincing Tory MPs of that has been key to Rishi Sunak surviving this long without anyone condemning the deal.
There are some in the party who want Johnson to pipe down. As one senior Tory put it, “I think we’ll get to the local elections, he’ll quietly slip a letter to Uxbridge and South Ruislip local association chairman saying that he plans to stand down.” Wishful thinking perhaps. If anything, this episode attests to Johnson’s unwavering desire to return to the top job.
Westminster is waiting for the judgement of the DUP and the European Research Group – we won’t fully know the size of the rebellion until those two groups break their silence. But the signs are positive for Sunak. Even Johnson’s Brexit negotiator David Frost has come out in support of the deal. The key issue, however, is whether the DUP returns to the Northern Ireland executive in Stormont, particularly before the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April – little over a month away.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.
What does Rishi Sunak gain from the Northern Ireland deal?
Rishi Sunak has proved himself – but trouble still lies ahead