‘Boris being Boris’ as Rishi Sunak hopes to sell Tories on Brexit deal
The ex-prime minister is among Brexiteers ensuring Sunak feels the heat as a deal with the EU looms.
LONDON — Boris Johnson is "being Boris," a senior U.K. Cabinet minister quipped, after the ex-prime minister waded into the Tory debate over the contentious Northern Ireland protocol ahead of a crucial few days for his successor Rishi Sunak.
Sunak heads into the week hoping he can keep Conservative Eurosceptics and Northern Ireland’s unionist politicians onside as the U.K. nears an agreement on the post-Brexit trading set-up after months of talks between London and Brussels.
Following a meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday, Downing Street said "very good progress" was being made, but insisted "intensive work" is still needed "in the coming days."
But Johnson — who swept to power on a promise to "Get Brexit Done" only to be ousted by his own party last year — dominated the discourse on Sunday’s political broadcast round with a dig at Sunak’s strategy on the protocol.
The Northern Ireland protocol keeps the region — part of the U.K. — aligned with the EU in key areas in a bid to avoid a hard border at the politically sensitive frontier with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. But the U.K. government has been arguing since 2020 that the set-up creates unacceptable barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, while Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is boycotting power-sharing in the region until its demands for change are met.
Frustrated by a lack of progress in talks with Brussels, Johnson introduced the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to the House of Commons last June — a law that, if passed, would allow U.K. ministers to unilaterally override parts of the arrangement, and which sparked outrage in Brussels.
Since Sunak took office in October, the domestic bill has been put on hold as negotiators tried to find a deal. Widely reported quotes from a "source close to" Johnson — first carried by the Daily Telegraph — said Saturday that Johnson believed it would be a "great mistake to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill."
“Boris is being Boris," Penny Mordaunt, Sunak’s leader of the House of Commons, told Sky News on Sunday. But, she said, his move was not a "completely unhelpful intervention." She added: “The DUP’s tests that they have referred to are not a random wishlist, they are promises that we have made to the people of Northern Ireland. That is the bar that this deal has to get over, and I know that the prime minister is completely focused on that."
Other politicians were less diplomatic. Labour peer Peter Mandelson told the same show: "There’s nothing that Boris is doing now, or indeed throughout our recent history with the European Union, that could possibly be described as helpful." And he suggested Johnson was trying to "wreck" Sunak’s attempts at a deal as part of the ongoing "fratricidal war" in the Conservative Party.
Johnson’s veiled intervention came as a host of other leading Conservative Brexiteers put down markers.
David Frost, who was Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator and remains influential on the right of the party, appeared to row in behind Johnson on Twitter, warning that with "no deadline for these talks" Sunak should "keep negotiating and meanwhile push on with the Protocol Bill, so that our negotiators are in the strongest possible position."
He also called for "more transparency about what has been achieved so far" in the talks, claiming there are conflicting accounts coming from London and Brussels.
A number of Conservative MPs made clear that they would be guided by the DUP response to any deal Sunak strikes with the European Union.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said: “So long as EU law and regulations apply to Northern Ireland, leaving the province outside the U.K.’s own single market and the remit of exclusively U.K. law, the DUP cannot go back into the [Northern Ireland] Assembly.”