Rishi Sunak is preparing to face down his Conservative critics and push ahead with reforms to post-Brexit trading rules in Northern Ireland, with allies saying the vast majority of Tory MPs just want to settle the issue.
The UK prime minister spoke to Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, on Friday, in a new attempt to nail down a deal, with speculation rising that it could be announced very soon.
EU officials said the call was “positive”, while British officials said “positive breakthroughs” had been secured. Officials close to the talks said Sunak could even seal an agreement over the weekend or on Monday.
Downing Street has refused to comment on timings, but one crucial ally of Sunak said: “We know that almost 300 of our MPs just want to get this done — they’ve had enough.”
Downing Street is anxiously watching about 60 Tory MPs, out of a total of 355, who have expressed concerns about the deal taking shape with Brussels.
In a sign of how close both sides are to a deal, Von der Leyen had been slated to visit Britain on Saturday to seal the protocol agreement, with her itinerary also including a separate visit to Windsor Castle to meet King Charles for tea.
The trip, first reported by Sky News, was subsequently cancelled, but the idea resulted in reports that the deal might have been called the “Windsor agreement”. Government sources insisted there had never been any suggestion that the monarch would be dragged into the political domain.
Much depends on whether Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party responds positively to, or at least does not immediately reject, Sunak’s deal. Party managers estimate at least 30 potential Tory rebels could back the deal with DUP cover.
Sunak wants to secure last-minute tweaks to the text of an agreement to try to win over the DUP and persuade it to return to the power-sharing executive at Stormont.
Downing Street said talks with the EU had “intensified over the last week and progress has been good with some positive breakthroughs”.
Tory MPs have been put on a three-line whip to attend parliament on Monday, although party sources insisted this was standard procedure on a busy legislative day in parliament. Cabinet ministers could be briefed over the weekend, according to Tory officials.
Sunak does not have to call a House of Commons vote on reforms to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of former prime minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal, but may decide to hold one anyway.
In any event he wants Tory MPs to put on a show of strength in backing a deal, which would aim to improve the situation in Northern Ireland and sharply enhance Britain’s relations with the EU.
Sunak and von der Leyen are discussing a political statement on the implementation of the protocol, which will cut border checks, increase democratic scrutiny and limit the role of the European Court of Justice.
A “green lane” with minimal checks would be set up at Irish Sea ports for goods travelling from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, if they were intended to stay within the region. A “red lane” would be set up for goods travelling on to the Irish Republic and the single market.
Control over issues including VAT and state aid would be wielded from London, not Brussels. Joint committees would oversee the new arrangements to manage disputes.
Since Sunak presented the outline deal to the DUP last week, the party’s leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has made new demands. He says the agreement should include changes to the treaty, not just a political declaration.
Donaldson also wants Northern Ireland companies to be allowed to produce goods to UK standards, rather than according to EU rules, for export to the British market. Under the protocol, the region is part of the EU’s single market for goods.
James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, on Friday said the UK government’s priority was winning over the DUP, although Donaldson’s party has said it will need time to scrutinise the legal details of a deal.
“When, hopefully, we get those issues resolved then I would hope that the DUP would recognise that we’ve addressed their concerns,” Cleverly told Times Radio. “Until we have addressed those concerns we’re not going to sign off on the deal.”
Among the Tory MPs likely to cause trouble for Sunak is Johnson, who wants to push ahead with legislation that would unilaterally scrap the protocol.
Northern Irish politicians were expected to attend a rally in Omagh on Saturday, where a senior police officer was shot and critically injured on Wednesday night. The attack, by suspected dissident republicans, was not believed to be connected to the protocol but has stunned the region and revived chilling memories of its three decades-long conflict.
One DUP insider said: “If we get this wrong, we will consign the next generation to further division and I very much doubt, if this is got wrong, whether or not the Northern Ireland Assembly will ever be resurrected again.”