Tory Brexiteers to force Commons vote on Brexit deal

Rishi Sunak could be forced to rely on Labour to get agreement through parliament

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Monday 20 February 2023 19:52 GMT
Jacob Rees-Mogg backs DUP's requirements for Northern Ireland Protocol

Tory Brexiteers are prepared to force a showdown vote in parliament on a compromise deal Rishi Sunak is expected to strike with the EU on new post-Brexit arrangements.

The prime minister could be forced to rely on Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party as Tory rebels seek to embarrass Mr Sunak by staging a protest vote on an agreement forged over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The prime minister does not have to offer MPs a vote on any deal struck with Brussels, and could decide to defy DUP and Tory hardliners by signing an agreement against their wishes.

But one Tory Brexiteer, a member of the European Research Group (ERG), told The Independent that backbench rebels could stage a vote of their own if Mr Sunak were to refuse one and enforce a protocol deal without DUP backing.

Another ERG source added: “We absolutely need a vote in Commons when we know what is agreed – it’s right for parliament to have a say in a matter as important as this one. There will be concern shown by MPs if we did not get a vote. There are all sorts of ways a vote can be arranged.”

The ERG will meet for talks on Tuesday on the next steps forward, and are also expected to talk to their allies in DUP – as they urged Mr Sunak not to agree to any role for EU single market rules or European Court of Justice jurisdiction in Northern Ireland.

Brexit hardliner Sir James Duddridge, a Boris Johnson ally, said as many as 100 MPs could vote against a deal not backed by the DUP. “There will be a lot of unhappiness. Not delivering on Brexit and creating this wedge issue is not a responsible or sensible thing to do,” he told The Independent.

Sir Keir urged Mr Sunak to give MPs a vote on a post-Brexit deal, as he repeated his offer to get a deal through the Commons in the “national interest”. The Labour leader told reporters: “The question now is whether the prime minister is strong enough to get it through his own backbenches.”

Former cabinet minister Simon Clarke, a top Liz Truss ally, warned Mr Sunak it would be “desperately ill-advised” to rely on Labour votes to get a deal through the Commons, suggesting it would undermine his authority.

“I think there would be a very real problem for the government were it to be a deal which didn’t carry the support of the DUP,” he told Times Radio.

If Mr Sunak refuses a vote on a UK-EU deal, rebels could demand an emergency debate or early-day motion and look to stage a symbolic vote on the issue. Another option would be to tack an amendment opposing the deal onto a piece of Brexit-related legislation.

No 10 pushed back against suggestions a deal could be announced as early as Tuesday or Wednesday. But the two sides appeared to inch closer to a deal after foreign secretary James Cleverly held talks with EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic during an “intensive” phase of negotiations.

Mr Sefcovic described their video call, also joined by Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, as a “productive” attempt to find joint solutions. “Hard work continues. We’ve agreed to meet later this week,” he tweeted.

EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic (Reuters)

DUP MP Sammy Wilson told Sky News that unionists will not agree to implement a deal that would keep Northern Ireland administering EU law. “We are British and we expect to be governed by British law,” he told Sky News – saying a deal was “unlikely” this week.

But Tory moderates urged Brexiteers in the party to “grow up and compromise” by backing a deal. Sir Bob Neill, chair of the justice selected committee, called on “pragmatism not dogmatism” from his colleagues.

“It’s ridiculous to take purist points when you have got serious issues about people’s businesses, livelihoods and security – people have to grow up and compromise,” he said.

Sir David Lidington, effectively Theresa May’s deputy PM, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that the Tories should stop “self-indulgent quarrelling” and back a deal. However, Sir David also urged Mr Sunak to hold a Commons vote – saying MPs would force one if it wasn’t granted.

“If he believes he has got a deal which is in the interests of the country to accept then he should make his case to parliament. Parliament will find a way of having a vote on it. Even if technically it’s not needed, there will be one,” said the Tory grandee.

Suella Braverman says protocol bill an important ‘tool’ (PA)

Home secretary Suella Braverman hinted at a potential rift in cabinet, as she warned Mr Sunak not to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – the legislation currently on hold in the Lords which aimed at giving UK ministers the power to unilaterally rip up checks on goods.

Ms Braverman said the unilateral bill remains one of the “biggest tools we have in solving the problem on the Irish Sea”. It follows an intervention by Mr Johnson at the weekend, with sources close to the former PM warning that ditching the bill would be a “great mistake”.

Tory cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt said on Sunday that Mr Johnson’s intervention was “helpful” in reminding the EU the UK could still rip up protocol checks unilaterally.

However, No 10 sought to play down the idea of disagreement, saying the protocol bill was an “important piece of legislation”. The PM’s official spokesperson refused to say whether it would be dropped if Mr Sunak forged a deal. “We haven’t set out the next steps for it at his point.”

Mr Sunak’s spokesperson said Downing Street will remain “in close contact” with the DUP and other parties this week, but added: “It would be wrong to say there is a final deal.”

Mr Johnson’s ally Conor Burns, former Northern Ireland secretary, said Mr Sunak “deserves one thing from all sides and quarters”. He tweeted: “Wait and see what his deal (if there is one) contains. Then by all means analyse it, test it, support or condemn it.”

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