Rishi Sunak on Monday urged Eurosceptic Tory MPs to back him in his bid to end the bitter dispute with Brussels over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, but opposition to a deal was hardening.
The British prime minister still hopes to finalise an agreement this week, including providing a new role for the Northern Ireland assembly in scrutinising new EU rules that apply to the region.
Sunak hopes that efforts to address what he says is a “democratic deficit” in the so-called Northern Ireland protocol could help to sell a deal to the region’s Democratic Unionist party and to his own MPs.
On Monday Sunak met groups of Tory MPs to urge them to back a deal that he believes will restore the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland and transform UK-EU relations.
Diplomats in London and Brussels hope the deal can be sealed this week, marking a reconciliation of European powers ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But one senior Eurosceptic Tory MP said after meeting Sunak that “a lot more negotiation is needed” to come up with a deal that would satisfy Brexiters at Westminster and the DUP.
“The idea that a deal could be done this week is grossly overstated,” the MP said. “It’s clear that we are still a considerable way from an agreement.”
Sunak’s allies still hold out hope of a deal on Wednesday, sealed by a meeting between the UK prime minister and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, but they admit that timetable could easily slip.
On Monday Suella Braverman, home secretary, defended UK legislation that would unilaterally scrap the protocol, part of the Brexit treaty signed by Boris Johnson in 2019.
She argued that proceeding with the Northern Ireland Protocol bill would keep up pressure on Brussels to strike a deal, adding that it was “one of the biggest tools that we have” in solving the dispute.
Her comments echoed those of Johnson, who also wants to proceed with the legislation — currently on hold in the House of Lords. EU officials have described the bill as “a loaded gun on the table”.
Meanwhile Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s chief whip at Westminster, told the BBC that there should be “no role for EU law in Northern Ireland”, and therefore no role for the judges of the European Court of Justice.
Downing Street said Sunak would drop the Northern Ireland protocol bill if a deal was reached with Brussels that met all of its objectives.
On Monday James Cleverly, foreign secretary, and Chris Heaton-Harris, Northern Ireland secretary, held further talks on the deal with Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president.
“We are focused on finding a durable solution for NI,” Cleverly wrote on Twitter. Šefčovič tweeted: “Our priority is to succeed for the benefit of all communities. Hard work continues. We’ve agreed to meet later this week.”
Sunak’s allies believe the deal taking shape will meet the seven tests for reforming the protocol set out by the DUP and hope that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, its leader, can sell it to his party.
One Eurosceptic Tory MP said that DUP acceptance of the deal was paramount. “We as a party mustn’t set a higher bar than the unionists,” he said.
“If the DUP is prepared to compromise that’s good enough. There is always a risk of zealots in the Tory party that want to go further than unionists.”
Micheál Martin, Ireland’s foreign minister, said: “I think what’s very important is that everybody now from here on think about the people of Northern Ireland.”
Sir David Lidington, former de facto UK deputy prime minister, told the BBC that Sunak should push through a deal even in the face of opposition from some in his own party.
“He should be bold, if he thinks the deal is in the national interest then he should make his case accordingly,” he said.