If Rishi Sunak fails to strike a post-Brexit deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol soon, it probably won’t happen until there is a Labour government, former Irish premier Bertie Ahern has said.
The PM is under huge pressure from Conservative moderates to sign an agreement, but No 10 is believed to be holding off in a bid to win over the DUP and Tory hardliners in the European Research Group.
Officials in Brussels are reportedly worried the deal could lose momentum, 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.”
The former Taoiseach was speaking during a panel discussion with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former communications chief. The New Labour figure agreed that a Keir Starmer government may be needed before a protocol deal is finally struck.
“A combination of Brexit, populism, the utter charlatanistic opportunism of Boris Johnson and his lying to the unionist community, that is what has driven us to the point we’re at now,” he said.
Mr Campbell that he believed Mr Sunak is trying to find a resolution, but warned he was the fifth PM in six years since Brexit with very little political power. “For all that I think Rishi Sunak is trying, I don’t believe this is going to be fixed until the whole lot of them are gone.”
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.
Following discussions with No 10 officials, one Tory Brexiteer told The Independent that PM appeared to understand he cannot agree a deal without DUP’s backing. “He would be mad to do it, and I think he understands that.”
Another senior Tory in the ERG said they were in “no doubt” that Mr Sunak understood just how difficult it would be to agree a deal if the DUP refused to resume power-sharing at Stormont.
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 impatient Tory moderates have urged the prime minister to get an agreement with Brussels over the line as soon as possible. “The DUP can’t be allowed to hold a veto over the UK government,” one Sunak backer told The Independent.
Mr Johnson and the Eurosceptics have urged Mr Sunak to push on with the Northern Ireland Protocol bill, which would hand ministers the power to override arrangements unilaterally – despite warnings it could spark a trade war with the EU.
But Tory moderates are now confident they can defeat the controversial bill – currently on ice in the Lords – if it comes back to the Commons. One MP told Politics Home that 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, 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?”
But Mr Stamer has been reluctant to promise too much when it comes to future agreements with the EU, ruling out anything like a return to the single market.
Speaking in Manchester on Thursday, he Sir Keir vowed to ease trade friction and “reset our relationship with the EU” – but claimed it was a “big mistake” to think Brexit was the only explanation for the UK’s low growth.