Brexiters hardliners who had threatened to rebel against Rishi Sunak’s new deal with the EU will decide how to respond at a meeting on Tuesday night, while a key Boris Johnson ally criticized those already “pacing” the deal.
In a sign that he was willing to stand up to his critics, the prime minister said MPs would vote “at an appropriate time” on the details of their agreement to revise Northern Ireland’s agreements on customs and jurisdiction under EU law, known as the Windsor Structure.
There was no rush on the part of conservative backbenchers or the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) to embrace or denounce the deal, with both groups expected to take several days to decide how to respond.
But the threat of critical Johnson intervention remains as Sunak is due to withdraw a controversial bill tabled by the former prime minister that would have overturned the old protocol.
Some of the former Brexit “Spartans” who helped topple Theresa May over her 2019 deal are now part of the government, including Steve Baker. He gave the thumbs up as he left Downing Street on Sunday night, which was interpreted as a nod of approval for Sunak’s deal, formally unveiled the following day.
Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries has criticized Baker for “hyping the deal”, claiming he was a “key agitator” who helped remove Johnson from Downing Street last July. She said: “Any shred of credibility he has left would be destroyed if he took a stand against Sunak. He has nowhere else to go but to smile and support.”
Johnson urged Sunak not to abandon his protocol bill, which sparked a legal challenge from the EU. But the prime minister is facing pressure to do so from senior European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, whom he is due to meet to discuss measures to tackle the smuggling of people across the English Channel in small boats.
Any rebellion could turn out to be a small one, conservative strategists believe. Brexiters hardliners, including former UK negotiator David Frost and former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, have so far refrained from making critical interventions about the state of the deal as of last week’s reports. But even a dozen Conservative lawmakers opposing the deal could trigger bigger problems for Sunak down the road.
Anand Menon, UK director of a think tank on a changing Europe, said: “The danger for the prime minister is that opposition can be cumulative. A few rebels on protocol, a few more on the budget – all of which could turn into a real headache if local elections in May go badly.”
The European Research Group of Eurosceptic Conservative advocates will meet on Tuesday night to discuss how to vote, with a “stellar chamber” of lawyers gathered to examine Stormont’s plans to veto new EU laws in Northern Ireland.
While the ERG pledged to remain “in tune” with the DUP, several members privately told the Guardian that they broadly supported the Sunak deal. “As long as the details match the press conference, fundamentally, I think this sounds like something they should be able to live with,” said one. Another said he believed only 10 or so headbangers were “prepared to let perfect be the enemy of good.”
Sunak downplayed the significance of any rebellion. Speaking at a press conference with Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, on Monday, he said: “Ultimately, this is not necessarily about me, this is not about politicians. It’s about the people of Northern Ireland. It’s about what’s best for them.”