Boris Johnson has criticised Rishi Sunak’s deal on post-Brexit trading in Northern Ireland, but the former UK prime minister admitted that many people wanted to “move on” from rows with Brussels.
Although Johnson said he would find it “very difficult” to vote for the so-called Windsor framework, Sunak has secured a critical victory by splitting off a section of his party’s Eurosceptic right to back his new deal.
In a speech on Thursday Johnson acknowledged that the public wanted to see a deal to end the constant fights with the EU. “They don’t want any more ructions, I totally get that,” he told a British “soft power” summit in London.
Like many Tory Eurosceptics, the former prime minister regrets the fact that Sunak’s deal leaves Northern Ireland under some EU laws relating to the single market for goods, saying they would be “a drag anchor on divergence”.
But he did not confirm whether he would vote against the deal — rather than abstaining — and Sunak’s supporters believe a big Tory rebellion on the issue is no longer a danger.
The party’s Eurosceptic right has traditionally been hostile to almost every agreement between the UK government and the EU. But a split became evident on Tuesday evening when two formerly staunch Eurosceptic rebels — Peter Bone and Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker — enthused to reporters about the prime minister’s success.
“Everybody is tremendously supportive, really tremendously supportive,” Baker said.
The positive mood in the party was evident at an “away day” for MPs on Thursday held at the scene of Sunak’s diplomatic triumph in Windsor, where the party was urged to unite ahead of an election next year.
Even the MPs sounding most sceptical about Sunak’s deal, which will eliminate most customs checks on trade between mainland Great Britain and Northern Ireland, have stopped short of condemning the framework.
They have instead pleaded for more time to study the deal, announced on Monday, ahead of a vote expected later this month.
Simon Clarke, a former cabinet minister, acknowledged the new framework had introduced “improvements” to the previous protocol, agreed in 2019. But there were also “real questions” about its implications, he said.
Members of the hardline Brexiter European Research Group have also said they will wait to hear what Northern Ireland’s pro-British Democratic Unionist party (DUP) decides about the framework.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said the party continued “to have some concerns” about the trading arrangements.
If Sunak’s deal defangs the Eurosceptic right it would mark a significant development in a party that has been riven for more than 30 years by bitter squabbles over its stance towards the EU.
One figure on the party’s centrist, one-nation wing, Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond, said the Conservative parliamentary party seemed “extraordinarily pleased” with what the prime minister had negotiated.
“I think on the Conservative party side, this is a deal that there’s considerable unanimity about the scale of the achievement,” Hammond said.
One pro-European former cabinet minister said the prime minister had “split the ERG”. “That is a big moment,” the former minister said.
Figures in the party attributed Sunak’s success to his winning far more concessions from the European side than expected. Among them was the “Stormont brake”, which gives Northern Ireland’s assembly a say on updates to EU goods regulations in exceptional circumstances. That went further than many Tory MPs had expected and beyond what Brussels had said would be possible.
Tory criticism of the deal is still possible, however. One senior ERG figure insisted the government document explaining the deal had been “very slanted” and that MPs should reserve judgment on the agreement.
“People should read the EU document,” the senior MP said, referring to a separate explanatory document published by Brussels. “It’s very different.”
In the absence of an immediate backlash, however, the deal and the government’s success in winning over some Brexiters has fuelled hope that Sunak can resolve other thorny bilateral problems with the EU.
The prime minister told MPs this week the UK would continue to work with the EU in areas including research collaboration, the strengthening of sanctions against Russia, energy security and clandestine migration.