Rishi Sunak appeared to confirmed that MPs will be given a vote on any post-Brexit deal he agrees with the EU to end the long-running dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Challenged by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs to reveal whether a vote would be held, the PM said: “Of course parliament will express its view.”
Sir Keir also accused Mr Sunak of “pulling the wool over the eyes” of Tory Brexiteers by refusing to say a deal would leave some EU law in place in Northern Ireland – along with a role for European judges in protocol disputes.
Urging the Tory leader to level with his party’s hardliners, the Labour leader said: “The unreconcilables on his benches are going to twig – and they’re going to come after him”.
“The former trade minister said there can be no role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Northern Ireland. Will the prime minister be honest will them and tell them that’s not going to happen?”
Mr Sunak refused to say whether the deal would maintain some role for the ECJ. He accused Sir Keir of “jumping ahead”, and said he would be “resolute in fighting for what is best for Northern Ireland”.
Taunting the Labour leader, the PM added: “It’s his usual position, give the EU a blank cheque and agree to anything. It’s not a strategy, it’s surrender.”
Dismissing the cheers of Tory MPs, Sir Keir responded: “The sound you hear is them cheering the prime minister pulling the wool over their eyes.”
Mr Starmer again offered to give Labour’s support to a Brexit deal – claiming that the the basis of this deal “has been agreed for weeks” but Mr Sunak was still trying to “pluck up the courage to take on the malcontents, the reckless, the wreckers on his own benches”.
“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?”
It comes as Boris Johnson is said to be whether to publicly oppose any post-Brexit deal struck by Mr Sunak in the days ahead. The former PM will “100 per cent” condemn any agreement reached in the coming days if he feels it means closer alignment with the EU, allies told The Times.
Mr Sunak is under pressure from the DUP and Tory hardliners to get further concessions from Brussels, while party moderates have urged him to “get the bloody thing done”.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said a deal that would allow a return of power-sharing in Northern Ireland is still possible in the coming days – but it will require further concessions from Brussels.
However, he continued to insist that his party could not support a deal which meant Northern Ireland was still subject to EU law on standards on the manufacture of goods and other areas.
The DUP boss told sympathetic MPs in the European Research Group (ERG) that only three or four of the group’s seven tests had been met at this point.
Sir Jeffrey is also thought to have told MPs that shelving the unilateral protocol bill was “bonkers”, keen for No 10 to ditch the “arbitrary deadline” of reaching a deal before the Good Friday Agreement anniversary in April.
Rishi Sunak says ‘vital issues’ over Northern Ireland protocol will be addressed with EU
Asked how close a deal was, senior ERG figure Sir Bernard Jenkin told Sky News: “I fear not very close, because the government has been strenuously trying to reach an agreement but within very narrow confines.
Sir Bernard added: “It would be unconscionable to sign an agreement with the EU which cements in place the protocol.”
No 10 indicated that Mr Sunak will not drop legislation going through parliament allowing ministers to override the protocol unless there is a new agreement with the EU.
Downing Street also said Mr Sunak has spoken to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday night, and will have further talks with her in the coming days.
Allies of Mr Sunak believe he will push a deal over the line, despite warnings that some ministers could resign if a deal was not backed by the DUP.
Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, told The Independent that the PM “should ignore the shrill voices that opine after a model of Brexit that a growing population can no longer relate to”.
One senior Sunak supporter told The Independent that he “100 per cent” agreed that failing to forge a deal would strengthen Labour’s position.
On the ERG’s threats that an unsatisfactory deal could led to major backbench revolt, the MP said: “This is just some hardliners bluffing. They are tiny in numbers and most MPs remain behind the prime minister.”