Rishi Sunak has been warned that some of his ministers may resign over his post-Brexit deal with the EU if it jeopardises Northern Ireland’s place in the union.
The prime minister is coming under growing pressure from Tory Brexiteers and the DUP as he tries to get a compromise agreement with Brussels over the line.
Home secretary Suella Braverman hinted at a potential rift in cabinet, as she warned Mr Sunak not to ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – aimed at allowing UK ministers to unilaterally rip up checks on goods.
Another, unnamed Brexit-backing minister said some in government would resign if Mr Sunak attempted to force through a deal which meant Northern Ireland still followed EU single market rules against DUP wishes.
“The naivety is astonishing,” the minister told The Times. “The strategy hasn’t worked. People won’t allow something that doesn’t ensure sovereignty. Ministers will resign.
“I couldn’t look myself in the eye and vote through something I thought would undermine sovereignty in Northern Ireland.”
Ms Braverman said on Monday that the unilateral protocol bill remains one of the “biggest tools we have in solving the problem on the Irish Sea”.
It follows an intervention by Boris Johnson at the weekend, with sources close to the former PM warning that ditching the bill would be a “great mistake”.
Tory cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt also that Mr Johnson’s intervention was “helpful” in reminding the EU the UK could still rip up protocol checks unilaterally.
However, No 10 sought to play down the idea of disagreement – saying the protocol bill was an “important piece of legislation”.
The European Research Group (ERG), a band of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, are expected to meet for talks later on Tuesday even as Downing Street insisted that a final deal had not yet been struck.
Tory Brexiteers are prepared to force a showdown vote in parliament on a compromise deal that the PM is still expected to strike.
One member ERG told The Independent that backbench rebels could stage a vote of their own if Mr Sunak were to refuse one and enforce a protocol deal without DUP backing. Another ERG source said: “There are all sorts of ways a vote can be arranged.”
Sir Keir Starmer has urged the PM to allow the Commons to have its say on any final deal, offering Labour support to secure the approval of any new agreement in the event of any Tory rebellion.
On Monday, foreign secretary James Cleverly and the EU’s Maros Sefcovic agreed to hold a face-to-face meeting in the coming days after a “productive” video discussion. Sources in Brussels welcomed the move to in-person talks, but said a location had not been set.
Tory minister Maria Caulfied suggested the deal might not get done this week, a minister has suggested. “I don’t know about this week,” she told Sky News – urging MPs to give Mr Sunak “time and space” to “thrash out” an agreement.
Former Tory leader William Hague urged Tory MPs to back a deal when it comes, saying the public had a strong desire for a “sensible, pragmatic, co-operative relationship with our neighbours”.
Warning against pursuit of Brexit “purity”, he wrote in The Times: “Those who are most reluctant about a deal are ironically the people who need it the most, if something positive is to be made of Brexit and Northern Ireland kept within the United Kingdom.”
It comes as former Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis threw his weight behind calls to reform some of the post-Good Friday Agreement architecture in Northern Ireland, arguing that it was failing to reflect the changed electoral landscape in the region.
“The growth in the vote for the Alliance Party underlines the feeling that many more people now want to vote on issues, not on sectarian lines … if Alliance and its vote share continues to grow, it will never have the right to nominate the first or deputy first minister,” he said.
“Democracy cannot succeed when it is set in tram lines that can never cross,” Mr Lewis wrote in The Telegraph newspaper.