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Dozens Of Conservative MPs Prepared To Rebel On Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

Stormont has been out of action since early last year (Alamy)

4 min read

Moderate Tories who are opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill have warned that up to 50 Conservative back benchers would vote against if it ever reached a House of Commons vote, as the party divide over Brexit continues to deepen.

The contentious legislation has become the latest focus of the persistent Tory row over the Northern Ireland Protocol, as Rishi Sunak tries to convince staunch Brexiteers in the party to support his proposed new deal with the EU for trade across the Irish sea. 

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, introduced last year by ex-prime minister Boris Johnson, was controversial as it would give ministers the ability to unilaterally overhaul the Protocol without the EU's approval. At the time government argued it was a necessary and legally justified way of guaranteeing the region's place in the UK in the absence of a negotiated settlement with Brussels.

The legislation is currently sat motionless in the House of Lords, where it is not expected to continue its journey through parliament any time soon. While the government has not officially scrapped the bill, as PoliticsHome reported earlier this month, ministers are reluctant to move it on while efforts to get a new Protocol deal with Brussels over the line are ongoing.

Sunak has come under pressure from Brexiteers like ex-prime minister Boris Johnson and former chief UK negotiator Lord Frost to expedite the bill's passage through parliament, which would ultimately take it to a House of Commons vote.

However, Tory MPs who are opposed to it have now said that there would be a sizable Conservative rebellion in the event of it reaching a vote, with one senior Conservative saying 50 would vote it down. 

"The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is now effectively dead because there is an acceptable deal in place," a Tory MP opposed to the bill told PoliticsHome. 

"The legal basis for it has disappeared and there are a number of Conservative colleagues who would vote against it in the Commons.

"It appears we have the outline of a deal which would be good or the UK and Northern Irish business, and the wider UK interest. Everyone now needs to put away obscure ideological points and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland."

The growing back bench support for Sunak's decision to focus on negotiations, rather than passing the contentious legislation, followed former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland declaring on Wednesday that the bill no longer has justification in law.

Writing for The House Magazine, Buckland said that while he believed the bill was legal last summer, when there were no signs of meaningful negotiations between the UK and EU, "things have changed dramatically since mid 2022", with talks between London and Brussels having progressed to allow an agreement to be delivered imminently. He believes the legislation is now a "proverbial dead letter" as a result.

"The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has outlived its political usefulness and no longer has any legal justification," Buckland wrote.

A former minister who would also rebel on the bill agreed today that there was no longer sufficient legal basis for the legislation. 

"The idea that the UK government should seek to unilaterally break international law is one I cannot support," they told PoliticsHome.

"I hope the PM can get a deal with the EU so that he can ditch this bill as soon as possible."

Sunak's press secretary insisted on Wednesday that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill was still an "important piece of legislation", but stressed that the PM's preference was to deliver an acceptable outcome for Northern Ireland through negotiations. 

"It is the long-standing position of the government that we want to solve the issues in partnership with the EU, through negotiation rather than legislating domestically. In the absence of that negotiated solution, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is an important piece of legislation to ensure we safeguard Northern Ireland's position in the United Kingdom," they said.

Keir Starmer's spokesperson confirmed that the Labour leader would scrap the legislation if he was in No 10.

Hopes that Sunak will announce a deal with the EU this week are fading as the Prime Minister's efforts to convince pro-Leave Tory MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) continue.

Thursday is seen as the last opportunity this week for the UK and Brussels to announce that an agreement has been reached, as Friday marks the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said that while the UK government has made good progress in resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol impasse, his party's concerns about the role of the European Court of Justice have not been fully addressed. Specifically, the party says it will not accept an agreement that will see EU law applied to goods that are produced in Northern Ireland and shipped to customers in Great Britain.

Sunak spoke to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last night as politicians on both sides look at how they can finalise their agreement to secure the DUP's approval.

The party is refusing to enter a government in Belfast over its opposition to the post-Brexit treaty, having collapsed the power-sharing institutions early last year.

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