Leading pro-Brexit Conservative MPs hinted late on Saturday that they would be prepared to support Rishi Sunak on any “sensible” deal on Northern Ireland’s protocol, as the prime minister struggled to limit any rebellion by Conservative supporters.
Several leading Conservatives, who had been prominent in the 2016 exit campaign and who strongly opposed Theresa May’s attempts to broker a solution, said that what Sunak was prepared to present to parliament appeared to represent clear progress.
They said the number of Conservatives who could vote against the deal, which could be announced to parliament on Monday, was likely to be limited to between 20 and 40 anti-EU lawmakers.
Hardline Brexiters reject this, saying that when colleagues see the extent to which EU law will still apply in Northern Ireland, particularly for companies shipping goods to other parts of the UK, many more will object.
Former Brexit secretary David Davis, who resigned from cabinet over May’s Brexit deal, told the Observer who hadn’t yet seen the details of Sunak’s deal, but made it clear he didn’t expect to object: “My instinct is not to vote against it if it seems reasonable.” Davis said that Sunak was trying to undo the damage that, in his opinion, was done by Theresa May when she “granted full alignment of north and south (of Ireland)”. He added: “What he (Sunak) is doing is not a complete reversal of the damage done, but it is a significant reversal.”
Another committed senior Tory and Brexiter backbencher, who is aware of opinion in the backbenches, said he thought most MPs accepted the deal might not be perfect but still represented progress. “If people were prepared to accept the protocol in the first place, they should be able to accept something that is an improvement on it,” he said. “Most people don’t think this is the time to cause political problems for the PM.”
Martin Vickers, a member of the 1922 executive and a longtime Eurosceptic, said it was time to “move on” and address issues that the electorate cared about.
Conservative MPs were in a three-way race on Monday, raising expectations that Sunak will present his deal to the House of Commons.
Under post-Brexit rule changes for Northern Ireland agreed between London and Brussels, most checks and documents on goods crossing the Irish Sea would be discarded.
But EU law would still apply in many respects as Brussels insists it must protect the single market.
Despite signs that some Eurosceptics are agreeing to the deal, there are still jitters in No. 10 over Boris Johnson’s role in stirring up discord.
A Conservative lawmaker, who is undecided on how to vote, said the size of any rebellion could be doubled if Johnson opposed it. The former prime minister has spent the last fortnight talking to supporters, the DUP and the Eurosceptic European Research Group about the government’s plans, as well as its draft protocol bill that will be abandoned should Sunak proceed with his deal.
Figures close to Johnson are keen to stress potential backlash, saying his involvement could mean the government would need to rely on Labor support to win any votes on the new deal, a development some have described as “political suicide”.
There are also warnings of government resignations. “I spoke to someone who is sure that if the European Court of Justice is still involved they will give up,” said a wavering MP.
Sunak is believed to have secured a deal that allows the UK government to set VAT rates and state aid policy for Northern Ireland, rather than being an EU affair.
Downing Street declined to say on Saturday night whether a deal would be submitted to parliament this week and when there might be a vote in the House of Commons.
Figures in the ERG were frustrated by the secrecy. “We cannot agree on anything without seeing the text – nobody can be expected to do so,” said one. “Obviously, we would love to support it. But it would be a great shame if it did not result in the restoration of institutions in Northern Ireland, or if we found ourselves in the same position in two years.”
Another Conservative lawmaker, who is undecided on the issue, said the secrecy of the number 10 was causing distrust within the party. “It makes me wary,” they said. “Is there something they don’t want me to see that’s going to be thrown at us and we’re expected to vote within 24 hours?
“They hope it’s only the die-hard Brexiters, who they can label the Looney Tunes squad, who will rebel. But if you have 35-40 people, that’s a problem. If Boris rebels, he can reach that number.”