Boris Johnson and his allies have been accused of “suicidal treachery” by senior Tories for threatening to wreck Rishi Sunak’s bid to thrash out a new Brexit deal.
Former Tory Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan said the Conservatives face “oblivion” at the next election unless Mr Johnson and his supporters called off moves to sabotage the PM’s plan for new arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Speaking to The Independent, Sir Alan, Mr Johnson’s deputy when he was foreign secretary, said the rebels were driving voters into the arms of Sir Keir Starmer.
Mr Johnson has warned that dropping the Northern Ireland Protocol bill – which would empower the UK to unilaterally scrap parts of the treaty – would be a “great mistake”.
But Mr Johnson and his hardline Brexit backers are “detached from reality”, said Sir Alan. Mr Sunak was merely trying to “clear up the mess he inherited from Boris”, said the ex-minister, urging Tory MPs to let him get on with it.
In a stark message to the Conservative dissidents, Mr Duncan said: “It’s very simple: get real or die. Rishi must be given the space to fix it without being briefed against or attacked by those who created the problem in the first place.
“All they will do is make more and more people vote Labour: it would be an act of suicidal treachery,” the Tory grandee added.
Tobias Ellwood, the Tory defence select committee chairman, also told The Independent that Mr Johnson could “scupper” the party’s election prospects by trying to undermine Mr Sunak.
“Every headline the public reads of Johnson intentionally undermining Rishi Sunak results in a few more Tory votes lost,” he said.
The senior backbencher added: “If Johnson persists he could easily be accused of deliberately scuppering our election prospects for personal gain. This is not the standard of statecraft our party or the nation admires or needs.”
The former Tory PM was accused of being a “nuisance” and “wrecker” after a source close to Mr Johnson said on Saturday night: “His general thinking is that it would be a great mistake to drop the Northern Ireland protocol bill.”
It comes as Mr Sunak is expected to announce a new agreement with the EU on the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements as soon as Tuesday.
The Sunak government has indicated that a successful outcome would mean the protocol bill – which would unilaterally override checks – would no longer be required. But The Independent understands No 10 is not ruling out keeping the bill on hold, depending on the kind of deal struck.
It is not clear whether any compromise deal forged by Mr Sunak with the EU to ease checks between Great Britain and Nothern Ireland will be put to a vote in parliament – but the European Research Group (ERG) has warned of a major Tory rebellion if it comes to the Commons.
Eurosceptic backbenchers have been angered by an expected compromise with the EU, particularly over the oversight role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Northern Ireland.
Tory MP David Jones, ERG deputy chair, told The Independent: “If this is the basis of a deal then it will not work. Any deal would be completely futile and embarrassing if it’s unacceptable to the unionist community.”
Sir James Duddridge, an ex-Brexit minister who remains close to Mr Johnson, told The Telegraph: “The PM would be unwise to put his own neck on the chopping block,” adding that a large number would rebel – not only the few dozen in the ERG.
However, Tory cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt said Mr Johnson’s intervention over Brexit was “helpful” in reminding the EU that the UK could still take the option rip up protocol checks unilaterally.
Asked about the former Tory leader’s intervention, Ms Mordaunt told Sky News: “Boris is being Boris. But I wouldn’t say this is a completely unhelpful intervention.”
In surprising comments, the Commons leader added: “The intervention by a source close to the previous prime minister is helpful to remind the EU of that [protocol] bill, and what this deal actually has to deliver.”
Despite the DUP’s expected opposition to the deal, Ms Mordaunt warned: “Unless it’s acceptable to all communities in Northern Ireland it’s not going to work.”
Labour grandee Peter Mandelson accused Mr Johnson’s of a “wrecking” move trying to undermine Mr Sunak. “He’s wrecking – he’s trying to wreck the thing because he’s opposed to the prime minister. He and his supporters want to undermine the prime minister.”
Mr Sunak met the five main Stormont parties in Belfast at end of last week, but was warned by the DUP that the proposed deal “falls short” in resolving the unionist party’s concerns.
The PM can, however, rely on Labour’s support in a Commons vote, after Sir Keir Starmer took the unusual step of offering it. “He doesn’t need to go scrambling around to appease an intransigent rump of his own backbenchers who will never be satisfied with anything,” Sir Keir told The Observer.
The row comes as new polling for The Independent found that a majority of the public think Mr Johnson could stand down as a MP, while twice as many voters want him to keep quiet as those who want him to say more on political matters.
The Savanta ComRes poll found that 44 per cent of voters want to hear less from Mr Johnson while only 21 per cent want to hear more from him. Some 54 per cent of the public think the former Tory PM should quit parliament, while 36 per cent want him to remain an MP.
The same survey found even greater tiredness towards Liz Truss. Some 55 per cent of voters want to hear less from Liz Truss and 65 per cent want her to resign as an MP.
The Savanta ComRes poll of 2,201 adults was carried out between February 10 and 12.