Boris Johnson tonight refused to guarantee he would back Rishi Sunak’s deal over the Northern Ireland Protocol in a warning shot to the Prime Minister.
The Government is currently engaged in ‘intensive’ talks with the EU over resolving the bitter dispute about post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.
But, despite suggestions that an agreement could be struck this week, hopes have since receded of an imminent breakthrough.
Both the DUP and Tory Brexiteers are witholding their support for a Protocol deal until they are able to closely scrutinise a legal text.
And there was likely to be further alarm in Downing Street this evening after Mr Johnson failed to state whether he would support an agreement overseen by Mr Sunak.
He urged Mr Sunak to instead concentrate his efforts on controversial new laws at Westminster that would give ministers the power to unilaterally override parts of the Protocol.
Mr Johnson’s intervention will increase nervousness among Mr Sunak’s allies that the former PM could yet lead a Tory revolt over a Protocol deal.
Boris Johnson failed to state whether he would support a Protocol agreement overseen by Rishi Sunak
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris held further talks over the Protocol with the EU’s Maros Sefcovic this afternoon
‘It’s important that we wait to see what there may be,’ Mr Johnson tonight told Sky News of Mr Sunak’s efforts to reach a Protocol resolution with Brussels.
‘But I think the best way forward, as I said when I was running the Government, is the Northern Ireland Bill which cleared the Commons very comfortably – I think unamended – when I was in office only a few months ago.
‘So I think that’s the best way forward.’
Pressed on whether he could guarantee his support for a Protocol deal struck by Mr Sunak, Mr Johnson added: ‘I think the best thing is to continue with the Northern Ireland Bill that we agreed.
‘It’s a very good bill, it fixes all the problems, it solves the problems we have in the Irish Sea, it solves the problems of paperwork, VAT and so on.
‘It’s an excellent bill and doesn’t set up any other problems in the economy of the whole island of Ireland. I’d go with that one.’
Mr Johnson agreed the Protocol with the EU when he was PM. But he later turned against the deal he struck and hit out at the ‘bureaucratic’ implementation of post-Brexit trade rules by the EU.
A subsequent row prompted Mr Johnson to propose the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which heightened tensions with the Brussels and infuriated Tory moderates who claimed the legislation would breach international law.
Earlier today, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris travelled to Brussels for his latest talks with the EU’s Maros Sefcovic over the Protocol.
He described it as ‘another constructive meeting’ and said that ‘intensive work continues’.
Mr Sefcovic said the two sides would ‘continue to engage on the outstanding issues related to the Protocol’.
It has been suggested that Mr Sunak is ready to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – the passsage of which has currently stalled in Parliament – should he reach an agreement with the EU.
But Mr Johnson’s comments add to further pressure on the PM – including from within his own Cabinet – for him to keep alive the threat of unilateral action by the UK on the Protocol.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman this week described the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill as ‘one of the biggest tools we have in solving the problem on the Irish Sea’.
She has also warned she would oppose any agreement with the EU that gave it a ‘foothold’ in Northern Ireland.
Ms Braverman claimed she was not prepared to resign over the issue, but last night told GB News: ‘I’ve taken a very forthright position in the past because I’ve found the terms of previous agreements intolerable.
‘I don’t support selling out on Northern Ireland and allowing the EU a foothold in the UK.
‘It’s absolutely vital we safeguard what we’ve gained from the Brexit vote, that we go forward as a United Kingdom where the integrity of our Union is safeguarded and we properly take back control.
‘I know the Prime Minister shares that objective.’
Home Secretary Suella Braverman said she would oppose any agreement with the EU that gave it a ‘foothold’ in Northern Ireland
The Prime Minister had hoped to unveil the new agreement with the EU this week after flying to Northern Ireland to brief political leaders last Friday
Mrs Braverman played down the prospect she could resign over the Protocol and said she believed Mr Sunak shares her objectives
A Government source said there was now a ‘99.9 per cent’ likelihood that negotiations would slip into next week as the PM tries to calm a backlash by the DUP and his own MPs.
In her interview, Mrs Braverman said the Government was committed to working with the DUP which is refusing to return to powersharing in the Stormont Assembly unless there is fundamental change to the Protocol.
‘We have always worked very closely with the DUP. They are unionists. They speak for a significant portion of the community in Northern Ireland and they need to be around the table,’ she said.
‘Ultimately Stormont will only function if the DUP supports any proposal.’
During clashes in the Commons yesterday, the PM insisted he would be ‘resolute’ in defence of the UK’s interests.
He told MPs: ‘I am a Conservative, a Brexiteer and a Unionist, and any agreement that we reach needs to tick all three boxes.
‘It needs to ensure sovereignty for Northern Ireland, to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in our union, and it needs to find practical solutions to the problems faced by people and businesses.
‘I will be resolute in fighting for what is best for Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.’
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the PM’s initiative but warned that any new deal must not involve ‘tinkering around the edges’
But, in an ominous sign, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned there would have to be significant changes to the Brexit treaty with the EU, including ending the ‘unacceptable’ situation that leaves Northern Ireland governed by EU trade laws it has no say over.
Sir Jeffrey welcomed the PM’s initiative but warned that any new deal must not involve ‘tinkering around the edges’.
Former Brexit minister Lord Frost said: ‘We have learned we can’t rely on EU commitments that aren’t tied down or rest on good faith or the EU’s acting reasonably. They need to be legally clear and enforceable. If they aren’t, we will be back here again before too long.’