April 19. 2024. 8:56

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Rishi Sunak limbers up for a protocol showdown with Tory Eurosceptics

“We’re not stupid,” was the message on Sunday from Mark Francois, chairman of the Conservative party’s Eurosceptic wing, the European Research Group (ERG). We may find out if he’s right in the coming days, as British prime minister Rishi Sunak tries to outmanoeuvre the group to land a deal with the European Union on the Northern Ireland protocol.

Early signs suggest a showdown is looming between Sunak and the ERG. The group was an excruciating splinter in the toe of several of his predecessors, most notably Theresa May, whom they chased from office. The question now is whether the ERG is a spent force. If it is, Sunak will be able to steer through a deal, even if the ERG’s allies in the Democratic Unionist Party withhold their imprimatur for it. But if the ERG mobilises and can raise enough hell, Sunak will be severely weakened.

Assuming there are no last-minute hiccups in Monday’s “late lunchtime” meeting between Sunak and European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, he will bring a deal to cabinet. If ministers collectively back it, the British government and the EU will go public with the details. That means that by the time Sunak arrives in the House of Commons to present it to parliament later in the afternoon, the ERG’s intentions should be already known.

Francois was blunt on Sunday in an interview with Sky News’s Sophy Ridge, who asked what he thought of giving the European Court of Justice less of a role on trade issues in the North. “Less of a role is not enough,” said Francois, who added that it would be “sophistry” if the ECJ’s role as ultimate arbiter was just obscured behind new procedural layers.

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Francois also seized upon remarks made on Friday by the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, which the ERG chairman purported were to the effect that the government “wouldn’t sign up to anything that didn’t have the DUP’s backing”. However, that is not what Cleverly actually said. The foreign secretary said only that the British government would not sign a deal unless the DUP’s concerns “were addressed”. He did not state that the DUP would have to come out and back it.

“What we want is a situation where EU law is expunged from Northern Ireland,” said the ERG chairman. What he demands cannot happen if there is to be any deal: the EU will never agree to an absence of any ECJ oversight. If this is the ERG’s red line, then logically Sunak must cross it to land an agreement. That suggests a showdown must be coming.

What the showdown will entail is less clear. If any fresh deal is simply a political declaration that overlays the previous protocol legal text without changing it, then Sunak may not need to hold a vote. That would remove the ability of the ERG to prosecute a rebellion.

There are signals that some past rebels are mellowing as a Sunak deal looms. David Davis, who resigned from May’s government in protest at a previous May agreement with the EU, told the Observer he would be minded to vote for Sunak’s deal “if it looks anything like reasonable”. Martin Vickers, a veteran Eurosceptic, said it was time to “move on”.

One of Francois’s predecessors as ERG chairman, current minister in the Northern Ireland Office, Steve Baker, seemed to signal his potential acceptance of a deal on Sunday night, contrary to weekend speculation that he was on “resignation watch”. Baker retweeted von der Leyen’s announcement of her meeting with Sunak, as well as another tweet saying his resignation speculation was “premature”. If Baker is onboard, the ERG would be further isolated.

If Sunak presses ahead in the face of an ERG outcry, it is inevitable that the deal would pass any vote anyway. Labour has already committed to backing it, which makes it a mathematical impossibility the ERG alone would be able to block it. It is believed to muster less than 40 votes in the Commons these days.

A more serious headache for Sunak would be if his deal is opposed by former prime minister, Boris Johnson. His influence, were it deployed, could easily double the numbers prepared to take on the government in any rebellion.

That risk may persuade Sunak to opt for no vote at all.