Tory Brexiteers are urging Rishi Sunak to vote on any compromise reached with the EU to end the Northern Ireland protocol spat.
No. 10 would be close to a deal with Brussels to prevent routine checks on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland and to reduce the power of European judges in protocol disputes.
But Mr Sunak faces an uphill battle to win over the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Tory hardliners in the European Research Group (ERG), who remain against a compromise that would leave the protocol in place.
ERG deputy chairman David Jones told MP The independent that a vote in the House of Commons would be necessary – opening the prospect of a return to the great parliamentary battles leading up to Brexit.
“There should probably be a vote in the House of Commons. It’s something that Parliament should have a say on,” said Jones, who expects broad opposition from the Tory party to any compromise that maintains separate rules for Britain and Northern Ireland.
“On this issue, our positions and those of the DUP are indistinguishable,” the Brexiteer added. “It’s not just the ERG. Many party members strongly believed that the sovereignty issue should be properly addressed.”
Reports indicate that a technical agreement on customs is close, based on UK proposals for “green” and “red” lanes. The system allows goods to flow freely from Britain to Northern Ireland, while goods destined for export to the Republic of Ireland are checked at Northern Ireland ports.
Brussels has also made concessions to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) so that it can only rule on protocol issues once a case has been referred by Northern Irish courts, according to The times.
But Tory Brexiteers are unhappy with the prospect of a role for the ECJ. “You cannot have a foreign court exercise jurisdiction in your country. It’s fundamentally wrong. Why should Northern Ireland courts refer anything to the ECJ?” said Mr. Jones.
Asked about the idea of a compromise on customs controls, the former Tory cabinet minister added: “The protocol is constitutionally damaging to the UK as a whole. Anything that does not address the democratic deficit caused by the protocol is unacceptable.”
No. 10 has moved to quash speculation that a “technical” deal is all but done and awaits political signature, insisting negotiators are still engaged in intensive “scoping” work.
Senior figures in the DUP and ERG, who have met with ministers to urge them to end all protocol checks, have also been told the two sides are not yet close to a deal.
“I think the Prime Minister understands that it is pointless to come to an agreement that is not supported by the DUP, because they will refuse to [Stormont] institutions,” said Mr Jones.
The protocol was agreed in 2019 as a way to unlock the deadlock surrounding Brexit, providing for controls of goods at a theoretical border in the Irish Sea to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. But many union members strongly oppose regulations that they say have weakened the region’s place within the union.
Despite the prospect of a Tory rebellion in the House of Commons, Sir Keir Starmer has suggested that Labor MPs be flogged to support any final agreement that emerges from talks in the coming weeks.
On a visit to Northern Ireland last month, the Labor leader said he was ready to give Mr Sunak “political cover” if he reached a compromise in the national interest. party.
Former Tory leader William Hague has urged Tory MPs to prepare for a “deal” with the EU on protocol to move forward with the Brexit squabbles “rather than pushing for a perfect result”.
Downing Street officials would not be interested in whether Sunak intends to put a protocol agreement with the EU to a vote in parliament.
Mujtaba Rahman, a Brexit analyst with the Eurasia Group, said No. 10 could try to avoid a vote. The expert said a deal could be struck without any changes to existing legal texts, through a separate document agreeing how to interpret the protocol.
“A statement clarifying how the protocol would be applied in practice would be one way to do this. The bureaucracy is unclear at the moment, but politically you could see why they would want to avoid a vote,” he said.
“The big challenge is the role of the European Court of Justice,” Mr Rahman added. “It is the UK that will have to move the most, because ultimately the protocol is based on EU law. Whether Sunak can get enough to sell it to the ERG and others is the big question.”