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Deflated Brexit Rebels Fail To Thwart Comfortable Windsor Framework Win For Rishi Sunak

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

4 min read

Rishi Sunak's Windsor framework has comfortably passed the House of Commons. Only a small number of Conservative MPs voted against it despite suggestions a significantly larger rebellion was afoot.

A total of 29 MPs across all parties voted against the government on Wednesday afternoon, following a 90 minute debate on the deal for Northern Ireland struck by PM Sunak and the European Commission last month. The legislation passed by 515 votes to 29.

As expected, the Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) Westminster MPs opposed the Stormont Brake statutory instrument. Two of the eight DUP MPs were tellers who do not vote, leaving 22 Tory MP rebels and independent MP Andrew Bridgen, who recently had the Conservative whip removed.

The final tally suggests numerous members of the European Research Group (ERG) of hardline pro-Brexit Conservative MPs are likely to have abstained rather than vote it down, despite being advised to do so by the group's senior officers this morning. 

Keir Starmer's Labour Party gave its support to Sunak's Windsor deal, meaning the government was all but guaranteed to win the vote. A rebellion by 34 or more Conservative MPs would have forced the PM to rely on Labour MPs to pass the legislation, which would have put him in an awkward political position.

The ERG claimed that 48 Conservative MPs who abstained actively refused to endorse the deal. But a number will have been paired or slipped, and would have voted but could not be there, and it is impossible to determine which way they would have voted from their abstention alone. Some were ministers, who would have voted with the government. 

Announcements by former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss that they would vote against the legislation prompted suggestions that the Tory rebellion would be larger than No 10 had hoped. They were joined by other senior Conservative MPs like former Cabinet minister Priti Patel and ex-Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith.

But in the end a meaningful Tory rebellion did not materialise, handing Sunak a decisive victory over the hardline pro-Brexit wing of the Conservative party.

Chris Heaton Harris, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said: “I welcome Parliament voting today to support the Windsor framework and approve the Statutory Instrument related to the Stormont brake.

"This measure lies at the very heart of the Windsor framework, which offers the best deal for Northern Ireland, safeguarding its place in the Union and addressing the democratic deficit."

Sunak still faces a major challenge in persuading the DUP to back his deal and return to Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, however, after the party collapsed the region's political institutions early last year in protest against the original post-Brexit protocol.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said today his party would not be returning to Stormont as things stand due to concern with how the Stormont Brake will work in practice.

The Stormont Brake, which is what MPs voted on this afternoon, is a mechanism devised by UK and Brussels negotiators to give members of Northern Ireland's legislative assembly (MLAs) a veto over new EU regulations being applied in the region.

The DUP argues it does not go far enough to give Northern Irish politicians the power to block EU law, as a UK government in exceptional circumstances could decide to override the use of the Stormont Brake.

Former Northern Ireland Secretaries Julian Smith and Karen Bradley declared their support for the deal in the debate prior to the vote, while other Conservative MPs who back the agreement expressed frustration that a group of Tory MPs were refusing to get behind it.

Vicky Ford, the Conservative MP for Chelmsford, intervened during a question by arch Brexiteer Bill Cash to tell him that the issue was "not about his correspondence" with the government but the people of Northern Ireland, "the vast majority of whom support the Windsor framework".

"The people of Northern Ireland and indeed the people of the UK need to move on and focus on more important things," she said.

Peter Kyle, Labour's Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, took aim at pro-Brexit Conservative MP John Redwood for promises he made prior to the 2016 referendum like that leaving the bloc would mean cheaper food, higher growth and a trade deal with the US.

"There are many people who should be contributing to this debate in a thoughtful way… He’s not one of them," said Kyle.

Layla Moran, the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesperson, likened the Conservative rebels to "mutinous pirates who no longer care what their captain says".

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