Rishi Sunak is facing demands from Tory Eurosceptics to guarantee Parliament a vote on his new Brexit deal.
The Prime Minister is poised to sign off the pact with Ursula von der Leyenthe EU Commission president, during a meeting in Windsor on Monday.
He is then set to address the Commons to outline the agreement before a legal text is published so that backbenchers can pore over the details.
But Downing Street is refusing to say whether Parliament will be granted a vote on the deal and whether the result of any vote would be binding.
Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, said on Sunday that MPs “will have the opportunity to express themselves on the deal”, but did not commit to a ballot. The remarks raised concerns among Brexiteer backbenchers, who fear the government will try to “bludgeon” the deal through.
Members of the Tory backbench European Research Group (ERG) are looking at ways in which they could force a parliamentary vote if Downing Street refuses to grant one.
Mark Francois, the ERG chairman, warned the Government that it would be “incredibly unwise” to try and pass the deal without giving MPs a proper say.
A senior member of the group added: “If the government is so proud of this deal, why are they clearly terrified of allowing a vote on it?” Besides, there are various ways of forcing a vote in the House of Commons.
The source said Tory MPs could even engineer a vote through an adjournment debate, a route most famously used to bring down Neville Chamberlain in 1940.
Other routes open to restless MPs would include tabling an amendment to a related piece of legislation that would be turned into a vote on the deal. They could also apply to Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker, for an emergency debate about the agreement.
One minister said that it “would be odd” not to hold a ballot, adding that Eurosceptics would “find a way to manufacture” one anyway.
“It would be strange if we entered into an international binding treaty and an attempt was made to avoid Parliament,” the minister warned Mr. Sunak.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a binding vote or not. What really matters is Eurosceptics and the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] are kicking off and saying it is not a done deal. That leaves us going into the election looking like circus clowns. Collectively, we have to put this to bed before the election.”
Tory backbenchers have also warned Mr. Sunak not to think that he can simply pass the deal with the support of Labour.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Tory leader, said: “No government survives that exists on the back of votes from the opposition on major constitutional issues.”
ERG sets out red lines
The row came as the ERG set out its red lines for accepting any Brexit deal, which includes “expunging” all EU law from Northern Ireland.
But the agreement Mr. Sunak has struck with Brussels is not expected to go as far as that, and is not thought to change the legal text of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Instead, it is set to overwrite the original deal to minimize checks in the Irish Sea and the powers of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over the province.
The protocol is the rules governing post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland. It prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland by moving checks to the Irish Sea.
However, since it was originally agreed two years ago there have been complaints from Unionists and Tory Brexiteers that it creates barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and leaves the province unable to fully benefit from Brexit.
The row has contributed to the suspension of devolved rule in Northern Ireland. Both the EU and the UK have agreed that changes must be made, and have been negotiating over a revised deal.
The new deal is set to be created a new system of red and green lanes for goods traveling between Great Britain and Ulster, which will eliminate most paperwork.
Under it, products destined for sale in Northern Ireland only will be exempted from almost all of the bureaucracy that currently blights companies. Only those goods intended for the Republic of Ireland, and possible onward movement to the rest of the EU, will have to undergo full customs and safety checks.
Downing Street will argue that the new system meets three of the DUP’s seven tests for accepting a deal by completely removing the Irish Sea border.
But Eurosceptics have warned that just eliminating red tape will not be enough to win them round if the agreement does not address their sovereignty concerns.
A briefing note circulated to ERG members on Sunday said MPs should question under whose jurisdiction responsibility for the red and green lanes will fall.
“Reduction of checks is meaningless if the legal obligation for goods to comply with EU laws still applies, or if there are reams of paperwork still required,” the briefing note said.
The deal is also set to include new provisions to rein in the power of European judges. Brussels will commit not to refer disputes over the application of EU regulations in the province straight up to its own court under the agreement.
Such cases will go before the Northern Irish courts or an independent arbitration panel, which will have to consult the ECJ when making a decision. European judges will keep their power as the “ultimate arbiter” of EU law, meaning the advice they hand down will be binding.
Downing Street is set to argue that the elimination of the Irish Sea border will mean that, in practice, there is almost nothing left for the bloc’s court to rule on.
“If we can scale back some of the regulatory checks that apply and some of the paperwork that applies, that would in itself involve a significant substantial scaling back with the role of the ECJ,” Mr. Raab said on Sunday.
The deal is expected to contain a new right for the Stormont Assembly to be consulted on and potentially veto any new EU laws applying in the province. Under the agreement, Northern Irish politicians would be granted a seat at meetings where the impact of upcoming Brussels regulations is thrashed out.
Mr. Raab said this would amount to a “democratic arrangement”, whereby the Stormont Assembly would have the “last word” on new EU rules.
The deal is also set to effectively repatriate powers over tax rates and state aid spending in Northern Ireland to the UK Government from Brussels. Ministers will be able to make such decisions on a case-by-base basis, with the EU retaining powers to hit back against anything that it sees as distorting trade.
But Eurosceptic MPs and the DUP have been holding out for an agreement that completely removes the application of all European law in Ulster.
Unionists argue that the province should not be forced to follow any rules made in Brussels, because doing so carves it away from the rest of the UK. They have also raised concerns that doing so may mean that in the future Northern Irish firms will be unable to make goods that conform to GB standards rather than EU standards.
Their fear is that the situation could mean businesses in Ulster are at a disadvantage compared to companies in England, Scotland and Wales. Great Britain and the EU currently follow similar rules but are set to diverge going forward, with Ulster having to mirror the path Brussels takes.
‘We’re not stupid’
Mr. Francois said on Sunday: “Just putting a couple of intermediate phases in a situation where you still end up with the European Court of Justice is effectively sophistry. I mean, you’re not stupid.”
Greg Smith, a fellow Tory MP, added: “If we don’t get rid of the ability for the EU to set different laws within Northern Ireland, that will be a massive problem for a lot of us.”
Unionists and Brexiteers had demanded a fundamental rewrite of the protocol itself – but that was it rejected by Brussels, which refused to reopen the original text. Instead, the new agreement will effectively overwrite the existing pact, providing a new set of legally enforceable instructions on how to implement it.
The ERG said in its memo that MPs “shouldn’t accept any change which is not a change to the treaty, or some agreement that sits alongside it and takes precedence”.
“Any amendment which relies on the EU changing its laws is subject to them unilaterally changing it in the future,” the group warned.
Downing Street is set to argue that the new deal does in practice amount to a rewriting of the original protocol, given that it will radically alter how it works.