Tory Brexit hardliners ponder response to Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal | Brexit

Hardline Brexiters who have threatened to revolt over Rishi Sunak’s new EU deal will decide how to respond at a meeting on Tuesday night, while a key ally of Boris Johnson has hit those already “flashed” with the deal.

In a sign he was ready to face his critics, the prime minister said MPs would get a vote “in due course” on the details of his agreement to review Northern Ireland’s customs and jurisdiction arrangements over EU law, known as the Windsor framework.

There was no rush from the Conservative Tories or the Democratic Unionist Party to accept or terminate the deal, and both groups were expected to take days to decide how to respond.

But the threat of Johnson’s critical intervention remains, given that Sunak was set to reject a controversial bill introduced under Johnson that would have replaced the old protocol.

Some of the old Brexit Spartans who helped topple Theresa May over her 2019 deal are now part of the government, including Steve Baker. He gave a thumbs up after leaving Downing Street on Sunday night, which was taken as a sign of approval of Sunak’s deal, formally unveiled the next day.

Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries slapped Baker for “delighting with the deal”, claiming he was a “key agitator” who helped remove Johnson from Downing Street last July.

She said, “What little credibility he had left would be destroyed if he went against Sunak. There is no other choice but to smile and be supportive.”

Johnson urged Sunak not to abandon the protocol bill, prompting a legal challenge from the EU. But the prime minister is facing pressure from high-level European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, with whom he is due to meet to discuss measures to counter human smuggling across the English Channel in small boats.

Any rebellion could be small, Tory strategists believe.

Hardline Brexiters, including former British negotiator David Frost and former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, have so far refrained from making critical interventions on the state of the deal based on last week’s reports.

But even a dozen Conservative MPs opposing the deal could cause bigger problems for Sunak in the long run.

Anand Menon, UK director at the think tank “Changing Europe”, said: “The danger for the Prime Minister is that the opposition can accumulate. A few rebels in the protocol, a few more in the budget – all of which could cause a real headache if the local elections in May go badly.

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The European Study Group of Tory Eurosceptic backbenchers will meet on Tuesday evening to discuss the vote, with a “star chamber” of lawyers gathered to investigate Stormont’s plans to veto new EU rules in Northern Ireland.

Although the ERG has promised to stay “in close contact” with the DUP, several members have privately told the Guardian that they support Sunak’s deal in principle.

“Provided the details are consistent with the press conference, basically I think it sounds like something they should be able to live with,” one said. Another said he believed only 10 “headbangers” were “prepared to make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

Sunak downplayed the significance of any rebellion. Speaking at a press conference with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, on Monday, he said: “Ultimately, it’s not necessarily about me, it’s not about politicians. These are the people of Northern Ireland. It’s about what’s best for them.”

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