Downing Street has set out its apparent intention to push ahead with a new trade regime for Northern Ireland, whether or not the Democratic Unionist party supports the plan – although a Conservative Brexiter leader predicted they would.
A day after Rishi Sunak unveiled his self-styled ‘Windsor framework’, an attempt to patch holes in Boris Johnson’s original post-Brexit protocol for Northern Ireland, a sense of euphoria among Conservatives was giving way to recognition that there was a long road ahead.
Even if the DUP and more skeptical Conservative MPs decide they can live with a plan that won significant concessions from Brussels but still leaves room for EU law in Northern Ireland, full ratification will likely take months.
Perhaps the key moment of the day came just after 8am when the Prime Minister was asked about his deal on BBC Radio 4’s Today show and asked whether it would be implemented even if the DUP refused to accept it.
Sunak replied: “The structure is what we agreed with the European Union.”
On Tuesday night, he continued his sales pitch to MPs with a speech to the 1922 Committee of Conservative Advocates. Speaking afterwards, Steve Baker, a leading Conservative voice on Brexit issues who is now Northern Ireland minister, said the response had been positive.
“The prime minister is not going to lose any votes on this,” Baker said. “Everybody realizes this is the best that can happen.”
But with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the DUP, saying the party would look at the full legal text before deciding whether to accept the plan, Baker said Sunak accepted the need to take things slowly.
“People are clearly concerned about the DUP’s willingness to go back to sharing power,” he said. “The Prime Minister has made it clear that they need time to discuss all issues. This is a very difficult question for them. I believe they will agree that this is a good deal.”
The European Research Group, which represents many backbench Tory Brexiters, said it would convene a sub-group of MPs and others with legal backgrounds to look at the full text and pinpoint potential problems.
While the Number 10 will be delighted by the initial reaction to the plan, they will also know that two important voices – Johnson and David Frost, who negotiated the original Brexit deal – have yet to provide a formal response.
Sunak and his officials are aware of the pitfalls ahead, particularly the inherent contradictions of welcoming a plan that gives Northern Ireland greater trade advantages than anywhere else in the UK.
Speaking to a small gathering at a tightly run “PM Connect” event at a Coca-Cola factory in Lisburn, southwest Belfast, Sunak was effusive in his description of Northern Ireland’s “unique” and privileged economic position of largely unrestricted trade. of goods with the EU and Great Britain.
“Nobody else has that,” Sunak told the audience. “No one – just you here.
“And that is the prize. I can tell you, when I go around the world and talk to companies, they say, ‘That’s interesting.’ Nowhere else does this exist. It’s like the most exciting economic zone in the world.”
Such comments, which are likely to spark concerns among some Brexiters that Sunak might be receptive to more open trade relations with the EU, have also sparked accusations from other critics that he was praising a situation that ended for the rest of the UK with Brexit. .
“The Prime Minister is bragging about the benefits of the single market and customs union for businesses in Northern Ireland, while denying those same benefits to businesses struggling in the rest of the UK with our current economic crisis,” said Stella Creasy, labor parliamentarian. chairing the Workers’ Movement for Europe.
Alyn Smith MP, spokesperson for the Scottish National Party in Europe, said Sunak appeared to be “working as a remnant”.
Assuming the plan is not derailed by a mass rebellion, the timetable could take months to ratify on both sides of the English Channel, with legislation needed in Brussels and London to amend the original withdrawal agreement.
The ratification process will begin in a UK-EU joint committee next month, but is expected to be followed by new laws. The legislative route has not yet been defined by the government, but it is expected to take the form of a statutory instrument rather than primary legislation.
On the EU side, part of the new pact could be agreed at joint committee level, but as the original treaty is being tweaked, it will require approval from member states and official signing by the European parliament.
While the deal is more straightforward than the trade and cooperation deal, sources say that process could take well into the summer. Government sources say it could take a year to take effect.