'We've now taken back control': Sunak hails Brexit deal as Tory hardliners and DUP size up agreement

27 February 2023, 14:16 | Updated: 28 February 2023, 19:28

Mr Sunak outlined his deal to MPs but is waiting on whether Boris Johnson backs it
Mr Sunak outlined his deal to MPs but is waiting on whether Boris Johnson backs it. Picture: Alamy / Getty

By Kit Heren

Rishi Sunak has said the UK has "now taken back control" as he hailed his new deal to reform the Northern Ireland protocol, after striking a revised agreement with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the deal, though not perfect, was a compromise and that he would vote in favour of it.

His party's support means MPs will almost definitely approve the "Windsor Framework" the PM finalised on Monday with the EU in Windsor.

But Mr Sunak will still hope his own party's Brexit hardliners – including the still-influential Boris Johnson – will support it and avoid relying on the opposition to approve it. Sources close to the ex-PM said he is studying the Government's proposals.

"We will not snipe. We will not seek to play political games," Sir Keir said in the Commons.

"And when the Prime Minister puts this deal forward for a vote, Labour will vote for it. The Protocol will never be perfect. It is a compromise.

"But I have always been clear that, if implemented correctly it is an arrangement that could work in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. And that now it’s been agreed, we all have an obligation to make it work."

On Tuesday, Nick Ferrari at Breakfast on LBC challenged Foreign Secretary James Cleverly's support of Boris Johnson asking if the former Prime Minister let the country down.

Nick Ferrari challenges Foreign Secretary James Cleverly's support of Boris Johnson

The "Windsor Framework" amends the conditions under which trade in Northern Ireland takes place, establishing green and red lanes based on the risk of the goods that could move into the Republic of Ireland and the single market.

Boris Johnson's influence could be key to whether the changes sail through in an expected vote by MPs or if serious opposition is mounted.

Some EU law will still apply in Northern Ireland - but Mr Sunak said it would be the bare minimum required for frictionless trade between the province and the EU, preventing a hard border in Ireland.

He said the new framework will remove "thousands of pages of EU laws and [make] permanent legally binding changes to the protocol itself" during a statement in Parliament.

Read more: Brexit deal: Northern Ireland Protocol explained

Former Brexit secretary brands the new deal a 'remarkable achievement'

But MPs jeered when he praised his "predecessor" for laying the groundwork that allowed the old protocol to be superseded by his new deal with the EU.

"It achieves something we never achieved before - removing the requirements of the EU customs code for people sending and receiving parcels. Families can rightly send packages to each other without filling in forms," he said.

"Online retailers can serve customers in Northern Ireland as they did before and businesses can ship parcels through the green lane."

Rishi Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shake hands as they hold a press conference at Windsor Guildhall on February 27, 2023 in Windsor, England.
Rishi Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shake hands as they hold a press conference at Windsor Guildhall on February 27, 2023 in Windsor, England. Picture: Getty

He added, to cheers from his party: "We have delivered what the people in Northern Ireland asked for... we have removed the border in the Irish Sea."

Earlier, at the Windsor Guildhall, where he spoke with Ms von der Leyen, he said: "Together we have changed the original protocol and are today announcing the new Windsor framework.

"Today's agreement delivers smooth-flowing trade within the whole United Kingdom, protects Northern Ireland's place in our union and safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland."

Controversially, King Charles was due to meet Ms von der Leyen too in the final part of the negotiations - something that Brexiteers feared represented a monarch inappropriately becoming entangled in a political issue.

The Northern Ireland protocol is an arrangement that avoids creating a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which would go against agreements designed to keep the peace between communities in the north.

Some checks on goods take place to reduce the risk of products that don't comply with EU rules entering the single market from Britain, but unionists critics say it effectively moves the border from Ireland to the Irish Sea.

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This new deal would establish red and green lanes depending on whether products are destined for the Republic – and therefore the single market - or just Northern Ireland. There would be reduced checks for the latter.

Politicians at Stormont would be able to have a say in which EU rules they continue to follow via an "emergency brake" mechanism.

"We've amended the legal text of the of the protocol to ensure we can make critical VAT and excise changes for the whole of the UK, for example alcohol duty, meaning our reforms to cut the cost of a pint in a pub will now apply in Northern Ireland," Mr Sunak added.

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The Irish Times said the DUP is expected to approve the plans. Some pro-Brexit Tories had threatened to oppose any deal if the unionist party did not agree to it, and the party said it will examine the proposals in detail.

And Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker – the self styled "Brexit hard-man" – backed the deal despite having reportedly been put on resignation watch.

"I can only say this: that the Prime Minister is on the cusp of securing a really fantastic result for everyone involved," he said.

There are also question marks over what Boris Johnson will make of it. The former PM looks to be making a comeback by cranking up the pressure under his ex-chancellor and could try to lead any resistance to a plan.

Tom in Dublin says NI Protocol is DUP’s 'Trojan horse'

MPs in the House of Commons had mixed reactions on Monday night.

Conservative former minister and staunch Brexit supporter David Davis gave his backing to the deal, describing it as "a spectacular negotiating success".

Paying tribute to the Stormont brake in particular, he added: "I am unaware of any mechanism in any international agreement like the Stormont brake. It seems to me a brilliant piece of negotiating insight and imagination.

But Conservative former minister Mark Francois, chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) made up of Eurosceptic Tory MPs, said he wanted assurances that he "won't find any nasty surprises" when looking at the deal in more detail.

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He said: "As a former chancellor, he knows well that on budget day the Government puts a good gloss on whatever they're putting to the public but then you have to read through the red book to just check on the fine detail.

"He's worked very hard on this so can he assure me and the whole House that when we go through the red book, or in this instance the detailed legal text, we won't find any nasty surprises which will materially undermine the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom?"

Mr Sunak did not comment on when MPs would have a vote on the agreement when asked in the Commons.

Conservative MP Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, said: "Whilst respecting entirely and agreeing... that parties, particularly those in Northern Ireland, need the time and space to study the detail and to work out all of the implications for those in Northern Ireland, Northern Irish business wants and the good people of Northern Ireland most certainly deserve quick certainty.

"So if there are to be votes in this place on any element of the Windsor Framework as announced today, can my right honourable friend commit to ensuring that those votes take place speedily in order to ensure that certainty and peace of mind?"

Mr Sunak said: "Parliament will of course have its say and there will be a vote. But we will need to do that at the appropriate time as we give people the time and space to consider the detail."

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