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Hardline Tory Brexiteers Urged To "Get Real" And Back Northern Ireland Protocol Deal

Rishi Sunak prepares to get his Northern Ireland Protocol deal over the line (Alamy)

5 min read

Influential Tory moderates have warned the party's hardline Eurosceptic wing that refusing to support Rishi Sunak's Northern Ireland Protocol deal would undermine the national interest, as the Prime Minister prepares to reveal his agreement with the European Union in parliament.

Stephen Hammond, the Conservative MP for Wimbledon, said that Tories who were planning to oppose the deal that Sunak is expected to announce on Monday afternoon should "get real", while former Cabinet minister David Lidington urged them to "put the national interest first".

The UK and EU are set to announce today that they have reached an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol after many months of negotiations.

Sunak is meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Windsor this lunchtime where the pair are expected to bring the long-standing post-Brexit impasse to an end.

If they are successful in getting the deal over the line, they will hold a joint press conference later in the day, before the PM makes a statement detailing the agreement to the House of Commons this evening.

Once the deal is announced, Sunak will attempt to secure the approval of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has boycotted Northern Ireland's power-sharing government since early last year over its opposition to the post-Brexit treaty for the region in its current form.

The DUP led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is expected to spend a number of days studying the text of the deal before deciding whether to back it. 

Sunak will also try to win over avid pro-Brexit Tory MPs in the European Research Group (ERG), whose members have threatened to oppose the deal if it fails to satisfy their demands on sovereignty.

The ERG plans to meet this week, potentially Tuesday, to discuss the substance of the Northern Ireland Protocol deal, PoliticsHome understands.

A senior member of the ERG, former Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith, has warned No 10 against trying to "bounce" Conservative MPs into backing the deal.

"What concerns me is the government is making an attempt at a bounce, and there is nothing MPs hate more than being bounced into something.

"There’s lots of running around saying this a great success, but we haven’t seen any of the details. We have a real problem because we have no idea what has been agreed: what is its legal status, will there be binding changes, what have they given up in return for concession," he told The Telegraph.

However, Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, who used to lead the ERG, appeared to confirm this morning that he supported the imminent agreement, in a significant boost to Sunak's hopes of limiting any potential Conservative back bench rebellion. 

"I can only say this, the Prime Minister is on the cusp of securing a really fantastic result for everyone involved, and thank you, that’s all I can say," Baker told reporters assembled in Downing Street.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Conservative European Forum, Hammond said that Tory MPs who were considering voting against Sunak's deal because of their concerns about the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) were "missing the point" and needed to "get real".

“Some of what has been briefed suggests that the EU has been prepared to go rather further than most of us would have expected," the former minister said. 

"What I would say to all of my colleagues is very simple: we as MPs are here to stand up for interests of not just UK and Northern Ireland businesses, but the UK as a whole, and it will undoubtedly be in our interest to sign this today." 

He continued: "It is pretty clear to me that if you’re going to get tied up about the finer details of whether or not an arbitration method might seek to have to go through the European Court of Justice, you’re missing the point...

“I would say to all my colleagues: get real. We need to do this today."

Lidington, who held several Cabinet roles including deputy PM before standing down as a Conservative MP in 2019, warned Conservatives that they would suffer at the next election if they sought to prolong the party's perennial row over the UK's relationship with Europe.

He added that the reported details of the Northern Ireland Protocol agreement showed that Brussels had made major concessions in the negotiations talks, and that backing Sunak's deal would repair UK-EU relations at a key moment. 

“I hope very much that Conservative MPs will both look at the content of the deal and at what the deal will enable us to do to reset the relationship with the EU at a time when democratic Europe faces existential security and economic challenges, and get behind the PM," he said.

"If they want to fret about electoral impact, I would say that I remember 1997 [general election].

"The electorate does not like parties that squabble incessantly among themselves and appear to be occupied with themselves, rather than the interests of the men and women whom they are elected to represent. Put the national interest first, as I believe the PM is doing, and give him the support that he deserves to have.”

Hammond and Lidington this morning called on the government to build on the UK's post-Brexit trade deal with the EU by pursuing closer ties in areas like security, financial services and the ability of British performers to tour the continent. 

The pair said that striking a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol would help unlock other possible opportunities with EU countries, like a deal with France on tackling small boat crossings.

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