Boost for Boris Johnson as ERG chief says he could 'proudly' vote for new EU plan
Boris Johnson's hopes of getting a new Brexit deal through the House of Commons have been boosted after a leading Tory eurosceptic said he was ready to back it.
Steve Baker, who chairs the European Research Group of Conservative Brexiteers and voted against Theresa May's EU deal three times, said Mr Johnson's fresh plan had ditched the "worst feature" of his predecessor's proposals.
The Prime Minister wants to replace the Irish backstop with a regulatory border in the Irish Sea and customs checks on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the Republic, ultimately paving the way for the UK and EU to diverge on trade.
"This is a very dramatic change of destination," Mr Baker told BBC Newsnight. "So Theresa May's deal is about a high-alignment model in a single customs territory with high regulatory alignment for the whole UK.
"Boris Johnson's model is about special treatment for Northern Ireland and a free trade agreement as a destination, which is of course what the EU offered us.
"So if you look at the destination and the overall pattern it's a dramatic shift."
Mr Johnson's pitch to replace the backstop would see Northern Ireland leave the EU's customs union in 2021 but continue to apply many of its single market rules with the regular consent of Northern Ireland's politicians.
A government minister is expected to update the House of Commons on the UK's new proposals on Thursday, while Mr Johnson will also chair a meeting of the Cabinet to discuss the plan.
While Mr Baker stopped short of promising the Prime Minister his support, saying Eurosceptics would want to look at any deal agreed in "tedious detail", he said Mr Johnson now had a "chance" of taking Britain out of the EU with a deal by 31 October.
He said of the European Union: "If they get into that negotiating tunnel and engage on the substance of these proposals - and also all the other issues with the withdrawal agreement, which I know our negotiators have raised with them, if they're willing to treat on all of those issues - it could well be that we emerge with a deal that I can proudly vote for, and say to the Brexit Party: this really is Brexit, and you too should back it."
The supportive comments from the ERG chairman - who quit Theresa May's government in protest at her Brexit stance - comes after the DUP also rowed in behind the proposal, a move that could shore up support among Tory Brexiteers.
DUP Leader Arlene Foster described Mr Johnson's plan as a "serious and sensible way forward" which "allows the people of Northern Ireland a role which they didn't have".
In a further boost for Mr Johnson, Labour MPs Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell also said they were willing to back the proposals if they came to a Commons vote.
But the plan has already been given a mixed reaction from key EU figures, who have long urged the UK to come up with a workable alternative to the Irish backstop.
The European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, on Wednesday night said: "I can tell you that the first reaction of the Brexit steering group was not positive. Not positive in the sense that we don't think it is really the safeguard that Ireland needs."
Ireland's Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also warned that the proposal was "not promising" - but said it merited "further study".
A spokesperson for Mr Varadkar said a call between Mr Varadkar and Mr Johnson had been "constructive and useful".
But they added: “The Taoiseach said the proposals do not fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop. However, he indicated he would study them in further detail and would consult with the EU institutions, including the Task Force and our EU partners."
The European Commission - which is also considering its official verdict - meanwhile “acknowledged the positive advances” made by the Prime Minister towards getting a deal while stressing "further work" was needed.
Northern Irish business leaders also rubbished the "hugely disappointing" proposals, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declared it "worse than Theresa May's deal" and claimed it would lead to "deregulation" and "undercutting" of standards.