Hardline Brexiteers in the Tory party are confident that Rishi Sunak won’t agree to post-Brexit deal with the EU until it wins support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The prime minister is under pressure from the unionist party and European Research Group (ERG) not to rush into any agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol and push for further concessions from Brussels.
A deal is not now expected this week, with one ERG source telling The Independent they were optimistic that Mr Sunak would now wait until the DUP was won over before signing off on a deal.
Following discussion between ERG and No 10 officials, the senior Tory MP said the PM appeared to understand he cannot agree a deal without DUP 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.
Tory hardliners are also “extremely encouraged” by the shift in tone from Mr Sunak at PMQs on Wednesday. The PM said he wanted to address the issue of EU rules holding sway in the province and ensure “sovereignty for Northern Ireland”.
However, Tory moderates are sceptical of the idea that the DUP can ever be won over to any compromise – urging the prime minister to get an agreement with Brussels over the line as soon as possible.
Senior Tory MP Stephen Hammond told The Independent: “You have to ask, what would the DUP be happy with? If they don’t go back into the Assembly it’s problematic, but they have to recognise the need for some compromise because clearly the EU will not give them everything they want.”
Another senior Tory, a Sunak backer, told The Independent: “The DUP can’t be allowed to hold a veto over the UK government. No 10 is taking a bit more time to get them on side. But if they can’t [get them on side], they will have to agree the deal with the EU.”
The added: “Most fed MPs are fed up with it and just want this over. They would support a reasonably good deal, and they are well aware of the compromised needed.”
Simon Hoare, Tory chair of the Northern Ireland affairs select committee, has also previously told The Independent it was not necessary to get DUP support. “Let’s not mess around – let’s just get the bloody thing sorted and done.”
It now looks unlikely a final deal will be struck with Brussels this week, after No 10 said Mr Sunak would hold further talks with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen “in the coming days”.
Mr Sunak appeared to confirm that MPs will be given a vote on any deal that emerges. Challenged by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs to reveal whether one would be held, the PM said: “Of course, parliament will express its view.”
Sir Keir again offered to give Labour’s support to get a Brexit deal through parliament, saying Mr Sunak was still trying to “pluck up the courage to take on the malcontents”.
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?”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson challenged Mr Sunak to rewrite the text of existing Brexit treaty and address the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in protocol disputes in the Commons.
Mr Sunak said he had heard the DUP’s concerns “loud and clear”. He told Sir Jeffrey that the “democratic deficit” – being subjected to EU rules over which local politicians have no say on – was at the “very heart” of talks with Brussels.
Sir Jeffrey said he also encouraged by Mr Sunak’s emphasis on sovereignty and EU rules. “I welcome what the prime minister had to say … that we are not just talking about tinkering around the edges of the protocol.”
Foreign secretary James Cleverly told meeting of Tory MPs on the 1922 committee on Thursday night that a deal was “around the corner” – but the UK was still pushing hard in negotiations.
“He didn’t give much away. He emphasised his Brexiteer credentials and said they were working hard to speak to all parties, including the DUP,” one MP at the meeting told The Independent.
Meanwhile, home secretary Suella Braverman played down suggestions she could resign over the protocol deal, amid concerns among some that Mr Sunak is conceding too much ground to the EU in talks.
In an interview with GB News, Ms Braverman said: “I don’t think we need to be talking about resignation. I’ve taken a very forthright position in the past because I’ve found the terms of previous agreements intolerable.”
The home secretary earlier this week said the government’s protocol bill – the legislation currently on ice in the Lords that would hand minister to the power to ditch the agreement unilaterally – remains an important “tool”.
Despite playing down the idea of quitting on Wednesday, she warned: “I don’t support selling out on Northern Ireland and allowing the EU a foothold in the United Kingdom.”
DUP MP colleague Sammy Wilson urged Mr Sunak to push on with the protocol bill and not to rush into any agreement with the EU. “Not to proceed with the protocol bill would be wrong, because there must be a fallback position if these negotiations don’t succeed.”
It comes as Boris Johnson is said to be weighing up 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.