Boris Johnson has ramped up Brexiteer pressure on Rishi Sunak to defy the EU in Brexit negotiations and push on with a unilateral bill to rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The prime minister is under pressure from Tory moderates to sign a compromise deal with Brussels, but No 10 is believed to have put the brakes on an agreement in a bid to win over the DUP and hardliners in the European Research Group.
Mr Johnson made his first public statement on the row on Thursday, urging Mr Sunak not to ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol bill introduced last summer when he was still at No 10.
Despite warnings the bill would spark a trade war with the EU, Mr Johnson told Sky News: “I think the best thing is to continue with the Northern Ireland Bill that we agreed.”
He added: “It is a very good bill, it fixes all the problems. It solves the problems we have in the Irish Sea, it solves the problems of paperwork, VAT and so on – it is an excellent bill.”
The former Tory PM, who has been accused of “treacherous” efforts to bring down Mr Sunak over the post-Brexit row, refused to say whether he would back a deal signed by Mr Sunak in the days ahead.
Former Tory chancellor George Osborne said Mr Johnson wants to use the post-Brexit issue to “bring down” his rival at No 10, while ex-Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan accused Mr Johnson of stoking “suicidal treachery” in the party.
The deepening row comes as former Irish premier Bertie Ahern warned that if Mr Sunak failed to strike a protocol deal within “weeks”, it probably won’t happen until there is a Labour government.
Officials in Brussels are reportedly worried the deal could lose momentum if No 10 feels the need to placate the DUP, and Mr Ahern warned a compromise agreement could collapse completely if Mr Sunak cannot get it done soon.
“If it’s not sorted in the next few weeks, we will have to wait until the next British government, which looks like it will be a Labour government,” Mr Ahern said. “I hope that isn’t what happens, I hope they can sort it out.”
Tory MPs in the ERG are increasingly confident that Mr Sunak won’t agree to a protocol deal until it wins over the DUP to a compromise that eases trade checks and reduces the power of EU rules in Northern Ireland.
No 10 is hoping it can win the Eurosceptics and unionists over with a promise to end EU jurisdiction over VAT rate rules in Northern Ireland. The draft deal sees UK Westminster set taxation and state aid policy in the province, according to Sky News.
But lawyers advising the ERG have now sent Mr Sunak their own proposal to end the rule of European judges in overseeing protocol disputes – one of the main bones of contention.
Impatient Tory moderates have urged the PM to defy the DUP and get an agreement with Brussels over the line as soon as possible, with one senior Sunak backer telling The Independent they must not be allowed “a veto”.
Tory MP Richard Graham told The Independent he was “optimistic” that a deal would be agreed, saying “things can’t go on as they are for another 18 months without causing enormous long-term damage to the union”. He added: “That must lead to a deal – the sooner the better.”
Moderates opposed to Mr Johnson’s controversial protocol bill – currently on ice in the Lords – think they can defeat if it comes back to the Commons. One Tory said up to 50 MPs would rebel against the bill, should Mr Sunak decide to pursue it again.
Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris will attend talks with the EU’s Maros Sefcovic in Brussels on Thursday, but government sources downplayed the chances of an agreement being struck this week.
Asked about the concerns of the DUP, EU spokesman Eric Mamer said: “We of course understand this is a sensitive issue, it has been since the beginning, this is also precisely why we’ve had all these conversations.”
Sir Keir offered to give Labour support to get a Brexit deal through parliament on Wednesday, saying Mr Sunak was still trying to “pluck up the courage to take on the malcontents”.
Taunting the PM at PMQs this week, the Labour leader said: “He should accept our offer, ignore the howls of indignation from those on his side, who will never take ‘yes’ for an answer. Why doesn’t he just get on with it?”
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson stepped up his calls for Mr Sunak to supply jet fighters to the Ukrainians to help drive out Russian forces from their territory.
The former prime minister said the government should now “break the ice” and send RAF Typhoons to the government in Kyiv. “If it is a question of training people up to use those machines, we can do that.”