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Inside Rishi Sunak’s bid to charm Tory Brexiteers

Inside Rishi Sunak's bid to charm Tory Brexiteers

Inside Rishi Sunak’s bid to charm Tory Brexiteers

The operation to save Rishi Sunak’s budding Brexit deal started with a ping. As eurosceptic MPs enjoyed the sun-soaked final weekend of recess, their phones began to light up with messages from Downing Street.

One by one, they were invited into the Prime Minister’s office to discuss their issues concerns about the agreement he hopes to strike with the EU to finally end the bitter two-year standoff over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Over the course of Monday and Tuesday, he sat down with more than a dozen of his harshest critics within the Tory party, many of whom have been publicly and privately scathing about the leaked details of the pact.

That he cleared the time in his diary shows how alarmed No 10 has become by spiraling criticism of the deal and the potential for Mr Sunak to suffer the kind of Brexit rebellion that plagued and even brought down his predecessors.

Backbenchers who were invited to speak to the Prime Minister said he was “absolutely clear” no final agreement has been reached and that he would take their concerns on board as negotiations with the EU continue.

But not all were convinced, with one saying they felt the deal was a “fait accompli” and that the talks were part of early attempts to sell an unpalatable compromise to the European Research Group (ERG) of hardline Brexiteers.

DUP ‘terrifically important’

A couple of Tory MPs who met Mr Sunak said they had made a plain to him that they and eurosceptic colleagues could not support any agreement which left Northern Ireland subject to EU rules over which it has no say.

“We really do need to stop Northern Ireland being subject to rule by a foreign government.

“The importance of the DUP can’t be overstated, they are terribly important in this process,” one said afterwards.

“If the EU doesn’t change their mandate there can’t be any replacement to the Protocol. In that case we shouldn’t do the deal, because it’s effectively the same arrangements we have at the moment but with a bit of tweaking.”

Mr. Sunak offered no real details on how that issue would be fixed, they said.

“The problem is they’ve marched everybody up the hill and now they’re realizing they’ve got a lot more work to do, and they’re going to have to explain why they went off at half-cock.”

A second MP who met the Prime Minister said they had also raised the DUP’s demands that Northern Ireland should be freed from all EU laws and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

“I think I made them very aware of the fact that this was an issue of such importance and they themselves seemed to understand,” the backbencher said.

“The important question is how strongly are you getting a message across and I distinctly got the impression my message was received and well understood.”

‘Grabbed hissing cobra by the neck’

A third Tory MP said it was clear there was now “an operation going on” to try and belatedly shore up support among fierce eurosceptics for any deal Mr Sunak might strike.

“My gut feeling is that they are trying to set everything up and present this as a fait accompli,” they said. “If they aim to bounce us into this, we need to organize a defense before we know what we’re defending against.”

At a time when the Government faces numerous other challenges “one wonders why he has grabbed this hissing cobra by the neck and is trying to wrestle it to the ground,” they added.

Tory colleagues who backed staying in the EU were also nervous about revisiting old Brexit battles with constituency reselections taking place, especially after the ousting of Damian Green, a prominent Remainer.

“There’s going to be some p—-d off people who don’t want this reopened which goes way beyond the Spartans and the Brexiteers,” they said.

Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, have both been drafted in by No 10 to help sell the deal.

Fraught relationships

The pair, who both campaigned for Leave and are former members of the ERG, have been spotted around Parliament trying to smooth over fraught relations with nervous backbenchers.

Julian Smith, a former Northern Ireland secretary, is also said to be “chatting up” the DUP according to one source and has been spotted working the Commons tea room.

But interventions by eurosceptic Cabinet members Suella Braverman and Penny Mordaunt, who both expressed their support for continuing with the Protocol Bill, have only fueled talk among MPs of a wider rebellion.

In a bid to head off any splits Mr Sunak reassured his top team on Tuesday that he was a Brexiteer and a Unionist and that any deal with the EU would have to satisfy him on both fronts.

But the Prime Minister also faces a fight on his hands from One Nation Tory MPs if he presses ahead with the bill, which would likely sink any EU deal and sour recently repaired relations with the bloc.

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