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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Penny Mordaunt Insists Boris Johnson's Northern Ireland Protocol Intervention Is "Helpful"

Penny Mordaunt insisted Boris Johnson's intervention was not "completely unhelpful" (Alamy)

5 min read

The senior cabinet minister has supported Boris Johnson's intervention as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak closes in on a deal with the European Union.

Johnson, who stood down as prime minister last summer, made the significant intervention into the Brexit debate on Sunday as negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol reach a critical stage.

The UK and EU are on the cusp of finalising an agreement on the post-Brexit treaty for the region after many months of negotiations.

On Saturday, Sunak and European Commission Vice President von der Leyen had a "positive" discussion about the negotiations in which they "agreed that there had been very good progress to find solutions", the pair said in a joint statement in Munich.

Speaking at the security conference in Germany yesterday, Sunak insisted a deal was not done despite speculation that he could be announce an agreement as early as this coming week.

There were still "challenges to work through" in the talks, the Prime Minister said.

"No, there isn’t a deal that has been done, there is an understanding of what needs to be done."

PoliticsHome reported on Saturday that government whips were drawing up plans for Sunak to make a statement to parliament on Tuesday confirming that a deal with Brussels had been reached, though that timetable was not set in stone.

This publication reported earlier this week that officials were close to completing briefings on the substance of the deal, including a government command paper explaining the agreement that will be put before parliament for MPs and peers to read.

In his first major intervention on Brexit since resigning as PM last year, Johnson has urged Sunak to stick with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, a contentious piece of legislation that he introduced when in no10, even if he strikes an agreement with the EU.

A source close to him was quoted by Sunday newspapers as saying: "His general thinking is that it would be a great mistake to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill."

The bill is highly controversial as it would give UK ministers the powers to unilaterally tear up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol without the approval of Brussels. It was introduced during Johnson's premiership, when talks with the EU were failing to make progress.

PoliticsHome reported earlier this month that the Sunak government had halted the bill's passage through parliament to avoid undermining negotiations with Brussels.

Speaking on Sunday, Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt said she did not think Johnson's intervention was "completely unhelpful" as it would serve as a reminder to Brussels of what a deal must deliver.

"Boris is being Boris... I wouldn’t say this is a completely unhelpful intervention," she told Sky News.

Speaking to the BBC, Mordaunt said the comments were a "reminder to the EU the bar they have to get over" in the Northern Ireland Protocol talks.

"We have the bill and the command paper that was produced at the time, and in part it is because of that, that we are now able to have these negotiations and the EU is talking about things it had previously said it wouldn't talk about," said Mordaunt, who campaigned for Brexit in 2016.

Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen

She added, however, that the views of the people of Northern Ireland were more important than those of Conservative MPs when it comes to the protocol negotiations.

"It doesn’t really matter what any of us in the House of Commons think about this. The deal has to satisfy the people of Northern Ireland," she said.

Sunak faces a major challenge in convincing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to support a deal with the EU. The party collapsed the power-sharing government in Belfast early last year over its opposition to the protocol, and is refusing to drop its protest until its converns are addressed.

The Johnson intervention comes amid growing restlessness among pro-Brexit Tories, who fear that Sunak is preparing to make too many concessions in order to strike a deal with Brussels.

While the details of the deal being worked on remain largely secret, it is expected to contain a continued role for the European Court of Justice, which staunch Leavers are firmly against.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative party leader, warned in the Sunday Telegraph that the Northern Ireland Protocol had to be removed, not just altered.

"Reports suggest that our negotiators may have reached some sort of complicated arrangement based on red and green customs lanes with paperwork and checks on goods.

"However, European law and single-market regulations would still apply to a sovereign part of the United Kingdom and govern the way Northern Ireland trades with Great Britain," he wrote.

Former Brexit minister James Duddridge claimed there was dozens of Tory MPs prepared to rebel over the plans.

He told Sky News: "It won't just be the so-called Spartans. There will be a large number of Brexiteers, possibly the majority of the parliamentary party and potentially running into treble figures."

Keir Starmer's Labour has vowed to back a Northern Ireland Protocol deal if it is put to vote, which would almost certainly spare Sunak a humilating defeat at the hands of his own Conservative MPs.

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