UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has easily won a House of Commons vote on his new post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland by 515 to 29, but only after suffering a damaging Conservative revolt led by three ex-Tory leaders.
Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Iain Duncan Smith were among the 22 Tories who voted against the so-called Windsor framework, alongside six MPs of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party.
Sunak’s 486-vote majority, secured with the backing of most Tory MPs and the opposition Labour party, means that the rewrite of the controversial Northern Ireland protocol has passed its main Commons hurdle.
But his victory came with significant political problems, not least the fact that the DUP indicated on Wednesday that it had no intention of lifting its boycott of the Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP leader, said the Brexit deal struck by Sunak with the EU provided no “sustainable basis at this stage” for the party to return to rejoin the power sharing executive.
“We will vote against the proposal today and continue to engage with the government to secure clarification, reworking and change,” he said.
The DUP stance means that it is highly unlikely Northern Ireland will have a functioning executive in time for next month’s 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended years of conflict in the region. US President Joe Biden is expected to visit Belfast to mark the anniversary.
In spite of the DUP’s opposition, a poll for the Irish News found that support for the Windsor framework among the north’s voters outstrips opposition to the deal by almost three to one.
Meanwhile, the rebellion by pro-Brexit Tory MPs, who defied a three-line whip, confirmed that Sunak’s party still has a hardcore of Eurosceptics willing to defy his authority.
Downing Street had anticipated that about 20 Conservative MPs would vote against the measure. Sunak’s allies shrugged off the rebellion and said the vote “got Brexit done”. About 50 Tory MPs either abstained or were absent.
Johnson, who took a break from being questioned by MPs about the “partygate” affair to vote against the Windsor deal, is regarded by Sunak’s allies as being the unofficial leader of the revolt.
Steve Baker, Northern Ireland minister and self-declared “hard man of Brexit”, backed the deal and warned Johnson that he risked looking like “a pound shop Nigel Farage”.
The Windsor framework aims to ease frictions created by the Northern Ireland protocol, the post-Brexit trading arrangements that have soured EU-UK relations and paralysed the region’s politics.
On Wednesday, MPs voted only on a key element of the deal, the so-called Stormont brake, which allows members of Northern Ireland’s assembly to lodge objections to new EU rules being imposed.
Ahead of the vote on Wednesday, Johnson said: “The proposed arrangements would mean either that Northern Ireland remained captured by the EU legal order — and was increasingly divergent from the rest of the UK — or they would mean that the whole of the UK was unable properly to diverge and take advantage of Brexit.”
Mark Francois, chair of the European Research Group of backbench Eurosceptic Tory MPs, whose “star chamber” has been scrutinising the deal, on Tuesday signalled that they still had numerous concerns.
“The star chamber’s principal findings are that: EU law will still be supreme in Northern Ireland; the rights of its people under the 1800 Act of Union are not restored; the green lane is not really a green lane at all,” he said.
“The Stormont brake is practically useless and the framework itself has no exit, other than through a highly complex legal process.”