Rishi Sunak warned ministers could quit over Northern Ireland deal after Johnson and Braverman pile pressure on PM

21 February 2023, 06:03

Pressure is mounting on Rishi Sunak over his new Northern Ireland Brexit deal
Pressure is mounting on Rishi Sunak over his new Northern Ireland Brexit deal. Picture: Getty
Kieran Kelly

By Kieran Kelly

Rishi Sunak has been warned ministers are willing to quit over his Northern Ireland Brexit deal, which would see the current Protocol - negotiated by Boris Johnson - ripped up.

Sources suggest a new Brexit deal over Northern Ireland is edging closer and could be announced as early as the end of the week.

But Mr Sunak has been trying to appease members of the European Research Group (ERG), a group of eurosceptic MPs within the Conservative Party.

He has also been trying to appease the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, who currently feel Mr Sunak's proposed deal falls short of their seven tests.

The DUP's chief whip Sammy Wilson has described progress as "very slim".

Rishi Sunak meeting Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland last week
Rishi Sunak meeting Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland last week. Picture: Getty

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Former PM Mr Johnson piled pressure on Mr Sunak after warning that it would be a 'great mistake' to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in favour of a new Brexit deal.

Meanwhile, current Home Secretary Suella Braverman described the current Northern Ireland Protocol as one of the "biggest tools" the UK has in negotiating with the EU.

Boris Johnson said it would be a mistake to drop the current Northern Ireland protocol
Boris Johnson said it would be a mistake to drop the current Northern Ireland protocol. Picture: Getty

"The legislation that the government introduced is one of the biggest tools we have in solving the problem on the Irish Sea," she told the BBC.

"It's clear and it's right that the PM is committed to finding a pragmatic solution to resolve these issues which are affecting the people of Northern Ireland, and that we find a solution that's pragmatic and workable both for the EU and the UK."

Ms Braverman is the second cabinet minister to voice their support for the current deal after Penny Mordaunt also said it was useful in getting the EU to give ground in negotiations.

There are now fears ministers are willing to quit over the deal as the backlash against Mr Sunak's proposed deal grows.

One minister told The Times: "The naivety is astonishing. The strategy hasn’t worked. People won’t allow something that doesn’t ensure sovereignty.

"Ministers will resign. I couldn’t look myself in the eye and vote through something I thought would undermine sovereignty in Northern Ireland."

Sangita Myska and caller discuss Boris Johnson's involvement in Northern Ireland Protocol

There had been positive signs over a deal towards the end of last week following Mr Sunak's visit to Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said she believes "very, very significant progress has been made" and said a deal seemed "absolutely possible".

Not all leaders met with the same level of confidence, with the Ultra Unionist Party (UUP) suggest "there is a way to go yet" before a deal is struck.

It is now expected the prime minister will hold a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday as he seeks to satisfy the demands of his Mps and the DUP.

A No10 source told PA news agency that central to Mr Sunak's focus was safeguarding Northern Ireland's place in the Union.

The DUP has said there has been "very slim" progress
The DUP has said there has been "very slim" progress. Picture: Getty

A DUP-approved deal could secure the return of powersharing at the Stormont Assembly in Northern Ireland, after the DUP walked out in protest at the protocol last February.

On Monday, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and the EU's Maros Sefcovic agreed to hold a face-to-face meeting in the coming days after a "productive" video discussion.

Sources in Brussels welcomed the move to schedule in-person talks as a positive step, but said a location had not been set.

Sir Keir Starmer has urged the Prime Minister to allow the Commons to have its say on any final deal, offering Labour support to secure the approval of any new agreement in the event of any Tory rebellion.

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