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How The Windsor Framework Vote Will Work And The Risks It Poses to Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak promoting his Windsor Framework deal in Northern Ireland (Alamy)

5 min read

Rishi Sunak will put his Windsor framework deal with the European Union to a House of Commons vote on Wednesday in a bid to get MPs' seal of approval on his work to bring the long-running dispute over Northern Ireland to an end.

It is all but guaranteed that the vote will go in the Prime Minister's favour with Keir Starmer's Labour preparing to back the deal, which seeks to improve the original post-Brexit protocol for trade across the Irish Sea.

However, rebellions from Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Conservative Brexiteers are brewing, which could cause a major headache for the government even if the deal is voted through on Wednesday.

How did we get here?

Late last month, Sunak brought many months of diplomatic deadlock to an end by reaching an agreement with Brussels on a new deal for Northern Ireland's post-Brexit arrangements.

The deal, announced at a press conference in Windsor with European Commission Vice President Ursula von der Leyen, seeks to resolve a number of issues with the original Northern Ireland Protocol that was agreed by former prime minister Boris Johnson as part of Brexit divorce talks.

The UK and EU were prompted to negotiate a new version of the treaty after the DUP, led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, collapsed Northern Ireland's power sharing government in spring 2022 in protest against the original protocol, which it said had undermined Northern Ireland's place in the Union.

What are MPs voting on?

On Wednesday, MPs are voting on just one part of the Windsor framework: the Stormont Brake.

This is a new mechanism devised by UK and EU negotiators to give members of Northern Ireland's legislative assembly (MLAs) a veto over new EU regulations being applied in the region.

The government needs to introduce a piece of legislation called a statutory instrument – also known as an SI – to implement the Stormont Brake, which is what the House of Commons will vote on. MPs cannot table amendments to an SI, meaning it will be a straightforward yes-no vote.

The government published the SI on Monday.

A spokesperson for the PM said on Monday it dealt with "the most significant element" of the Windsor deal.

What about the rest of the deal?

It had been believed that Wednesday's vote would be the only opportunity MPs would get to vote on the Windsor deal.

However, the government will hold further votes on other SIs covering the deal, PoliticsHome understands, though there not yet a timetable for when these will take place.

How will DUP MPs vote?

The DUP is a vital player in this saga as the party is refusing to allow the formation of a government in Stormont until its issues with Northern Ireland's post-Brexit status are addressed.

On Monday, leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson announced that all eight of its MPs would vote against the government on Wednesday, in a major blow to Sunak's hopes of getting Northern Ireland's institutions back up and running.

The party is unhappy with the Stormont Brake because even it is used, it is not necessarily guaranteed to stop the application of a new EU law in Northern Ireland. This is because it is the UK government, not Northern Irish politicans, that will have the final say on whether to veto the law. 

It is possible that the party votes against the government on Wednesday before agreeing to support the Windsor framework later down the line if it feels it has secured enough reassurances from the UK government. 

Donaldson has assembled an eight-person panel to assess the details of the agreement before reporting back in early April. The panel is comprised of DUP and unionist political figures like former party leaders Dame Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson.

What about Tory Brexiteers?

There has been hope in No 10 that any rebellion by the European Research Group (ERG) of hardline pro-Brexit Conservative MPs would be small, with senior pro-Leave Tories like former Cabinet ministers David Davies and Liam Fox having come out in the support of the Windsor framework.

However, there are fears that it could be larger than expected, amid growing disquiet within the ERG over the terms of the Windsor deal and the government's handling of the vote.

ERG members are concerned that the deal makes it very difficult for a Conservative government to diverge from EU rules in the future, PoliticsHome understands.

The group is preparing to hold a press conference on Tuesday morning where it will reveal the verdict of its so-called 'Star Chamber' of legal experts.

There is anger in the staunchly pro-Brexit wing of the Tory party that the vote on the Stormont Brake element of the deal is likely to be their only opportunity to vote on the agreement, and that the House of Commons vote debate could be as short as 90 minutes.

"It's called a bounce," one ERG MP complained to PoliticsHome.

ERG MPs could feel further emboldened to rebel against Sunak by Donaldson's announceemnt that all DUP MPs will do the same.

Could the government lose the vote?

This is very unlikely.

Starmer's Labour Party has already said it will support the government on Wednesday, meaning Sunak will almost certainly have the votes he needs to get it over the line. 

However, a rejection by the DUP combined with a large Conservative back bench rebellion would put the PM in a tricky political position, challenging his authority and dashing hopes that Sunak would be able to put the Tory party's ghosts of Brexit to bed once and for all. 

Why is the government doing this then?

Sunak had promised to give parliament the opportunity to “express its view” on the Windsor deal, and will hope that securing the backing of MPs will help him draw a line under a subject that has haunted his party and bedevilled EU-UK relations for several years.

As one former minister put it: “Wednesday is not about whether the deal goes through. We know the result: it will pass. It is about where the power bases are building and crumbling."

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