A deal to solve the post-Brexit impasse in Northern Ireland is unlikely to emerge this week, a senior Democratic Unionist politician has warned, as Rishi Sunak came under increasing pressure from both the DUP and a number of Conservative backbenchers.
Sammy Wilson, who speaks on Brexit issues for the DUP, reiterated the party’s pledge that Sunak agreeing a deal with the EU without the consent of the unionist party would mean a continued boycott of Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly.
Asked if he expected a consensus to emerge this week, Wilson told Sky News: “No, I don’t”. There were, he warned, still “barriers and hills to climb” for Sunak. The government had, Willson said, “gone into these negotiations with an attitude of defeat, almost”.
Following talks with the EU last week, Downing Street had been hopeful of presenting a deal on Monday, with a Commons vote on Tuesday. However, this seems increasingly unlikely.
Adding to the headache for No 10 was an intervention over the weekend from Boris Johnson, urging Sunak not to drop a controversial bill that could unilaterally tear up part of the original plan for post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, agreed by the former prime minister.
Wilson welcomed Johnson’s efforts, saying the UK needed “as much leverage as you can have” in talks with the EU. He said: “If the former prime minister is now saying that he believes that’s a good tactic as well, then we welcome it, and I hope that the government does listen to that.”
The coming days were “a historic moment” for Sunak, Wilson added: “He’s got to choose: is he the prime minister of the whole of the United Kingdom, or is he the prime minister of part of the United Kingdom, who is prepared to abandon another part to the demands of the European European Union?”
Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs, notably those from the European Research Group, are becoming increasingly agitated at the idea of concessions made to Brussels to reach a deal, including the prospect of the Northern Ireland protocol bill being scrapped.
Simon Clarke, who was a minister under Johnson and levelling up secretary for Liz Truss, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it would be a mistake to drop the bill.
“We should press on with our bill to fix the protocol here in Westminster because it’s absolutely imperative tactically, to give our negotiators the strongest possible hands to play with Brussels, and also because the protocol legislation may well be the cleanest way to fix this problem.”
A number of Tory MPs have insisted that an accord is impossible without the DUP’s consent, warning Sunak against the idea of seeking to push a deal through the Commons in the face of the party’s opposition.
Bernard Jenkin, a veteran Eurosceptic Tory MP, told Times Radio: “If it doesn’t get the support of both communities in Northern Ireland it is just going to make things worse because it will cement in place an agreement that has destroyed power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
“I recognise that there is progress in the negotiations and so does the DUP, but unless we can get some fundamental principles sorted out then there won’t be power-sharing and we can’t have an agreement with the EU.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a cabinet minister under Johnson and Truss, told Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday evening that the DUP’s opinion “is fundamental to this”.
He said: “You need to get the DUP onboard first and then go and talk to Brussels rather than try and bounce the DUP, because the DUP doesn’t respond well to being bounced.”