(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government is beginning its hardest sell: convincing skeptical Northern Irish politicians to back its new post-Brexit deal on trade with the European Union. That means one final effort before the UK can finally repair relations with its biggest trading partner.
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Monday’s unveiling of the “Windsor Framework” featured a confident Sunak and a smiling, enthusiastic European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The next, crucial stage of the process will be a game of details, numbers and political arm-twisting.
Sunak’s team now needs to win over a tiny caucus of Northern Ireland’s unionist politicians and an influential group of pro-Brexit MPs from his own Conservative Party. Failure could mean a need to push the deal through with support from the opposition Labor Party — a move that could be politically damaging for Sunak.
Government officials said they were cautiously optimistic about how the pact initially landed. Despite lukewarm words in the House of Commons from Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, one said there was general relief that his statement was measured, and a continued hope that his party’s MPs would not all oppose the agreement.
The DUP has blocked the formation of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government for more than a year now, in an ongoing protest at the terms of the original Brexit deal. The party has just eight MPs in Westminster, but wields outsize influence. On Monday, the Commons chamber fell silent when Donaldson stood to speak.
“In broad terms it is clear that significant progress has been secured across a number of areas while also recognizing there remain key issues of concern,” the DUP leader said, adding that his party may still seek “clarification, re-working or change.” ” Sunak said he respected the DUP’s need to examine the deal.
Officials also took heart from the muted response of Sunak’s chief internal critics, former Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who are both reflecting on Monday’s text, according to people close to them.
Rebels on Alert
Still, risks remain. Sunak has promised to give MPs a vote at “an appropriate time.” That is likely to be next week, according to a person familiar with the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity. To win without votes from Labour, his whips need to convince significant numbers of potential rebels.
The European Research Group of Brexiteer MPs is awaiting advice from its lawyers and will meet Tuesday evening. While some ERG MPs are prepared to back the deal, others will take their lead from the DUP. That means a sizeable parliamentary rebellion is still possible if unionists come out against the agreement, three ERG MPs said.
Brexiteer MPs privately shared a document published by the European Commission that explained its own position on the agreement, noting that it said the terms of the new deal fell within the “pre-established framework” of the Northern Ireland Protocol. In contrast, Sunak suggested that he has secured legal changes to the original Protocol text.
Government whips think about 20 Tory MPs would oppose the deal in a House of Commons vote. The rebels say their numbers could rise above 40. Sunak has a working majority of 67, which means he risks having to rely on Labor — which may be politically unconscionable.
In a boost for Sunak, Steve Baker, Northern Ireland minister and a Brexit hard-liner who helped scupper former Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, enthusiastically backed the agreement. Other Brexit-supporting senior backbenchers, including former Brexit Secretary David Davis, also gave their backing.
“It’s time for us all to turn the page, move on to the next chapter, and this is an agreement that allows us to do that,” Baker told the BBC on Monday.
There was dissent, and prominent DUP and ERG MPs, including Sammy Wilson, Mark Francois and Bill Cash, were much more skeptical in the House of Commons.
A government official said they would make the case over the coming days that even critics of the new framework should accept that it would be a significant improvement on the status quo for the people of Northern Ireland.
Although some parts of the deal might be unpalatable to the most ardent Brexiteers, passing it could clear a path for the UK and the EU to rebuild a relationship built on trust and cooperation.
“If Sunak succeeds in pushing through this agreement, his prize will be better relations with the EU and America,” said Anton Spisak, a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change who previously worked on the UK’s Brexit negotiations.
It’s likely to unlock progress on several issues that were frozen by Brussels due to the impasse over Northern Ireland, including Britain’s involvement in the EU’s massive Horizon science funding program — welcome news for UK universities. A pact on financial services, previously agreed to but not signed, could also be unlocked.
Sunak’s allies have told Conservative rebels that if they don’t back his deal, there’s no prospect of an agreement that seeks to limit small boat crossings that fuel a cross-Channel immigration crisis, something seen as crucial to the party’s electoral fortunes.
The UK is also hopeful that the Windsor pact will help it deepen ties with the US, which has privately expressed interest in investing in the region. President Joe Biden has been considering a visit in April to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s peace treaty.
Perhaps most importantly, Spisak says, Sunak “can now claim the biggest prize at home: the electoral advantage of getting the unfinished business of Brexit done.”
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