Boris Johnson is still considering weighing in to denounce Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal on Northern Ireland but is believed to be waiting for the DUP’s verdict before he makes his mind up.
The former Prime Minister has privately dismissed reports that he has missed his opportunity to influence the debate over the Windsor Framework, which streamlines trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland while introducing new democratic safeguards.
Allies including former Brexit negotiator David Frost have expressed cautious support for the new arrangements but some eurosceptics have warned that its benefits may be oversold.
A source close to Mr Johnson said that he “continues to study the deal” and has not decided whether or not he will endorse it.
A number of his supporters predicted that he would wait for the views of the Democratic Unionist Party and the European Research Group of Tory MPs before going public. One MP told i: “He’s holding fire on the DUP decision and that of the ERG’s legal analysis.”
Another source said: “I think there’s a sense of no one being willing to put their head above the parapet yet as they’re not sure how much backup they’ll have.” And an ERG member added: “I don’t think he will want to be the first to say something on this… I would imagine he will be minded not to be an outlier. If there is a broader movement to be part of, he will want that. He won’t want to be isolated.”
Paul Bristow, the MP for Peterborough, hit out at colleagues who told i this week that the resolution of problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol should be the end of Mr Johnson’s career. He tweeted: “Imagine briefing journalists anonymously that one of your colleagues should quit politics. Cowardly and ultimately unhelpful.”
And the Conservative Democratic Organisation, founded by backers of Mr Johnson to campaign for more grassroots involvement in the Tory party, has vowed to redouble its efforts to allow party members to remove MPs who sought to overthrow the former Prime Minister.
Nadine Dorries, the former Culture Secretary, became the first prominent Johnson supporter to denounce the Brexit deal, saying that Northern Ireland’s mooted veto on new EU legislation “doesn’t actually exist” and accusing the Government of “huge quantities of smoke, mirrors and spin”. She added: “It is also patently not true that we have ‘removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea.’ Checks are being reduced, not eliminated.”
But Lord Frost, who led negotiations over the original Protocol when Mr Johnson was in office, reluctantly endorsed the new agreement. He wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “It will help. But it won’t remove the underlying tensions, even if the DUP does decide to go back into Stormont. It leaves the Government still only partly sovereign over all its territory. Just as in 2019, that is a bitter pill to swallow.” Ex-minister Simon Clarke told the BBC: “We have to be gracious and say it is a very significant advance.”
Lawyers commissioned by the ERG are currently scouring the details of the Windsor Framework to check whether the safeguards promised by the Government will be legally enforceable.
Conservative Brexiteers are keen for a comprehensive list of which EU legislation will remain applicable in Northern Ireland and what situations will invoke the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
One senior MP told i: “They are going through the legal practicalities of the agreement and looking into a lot of the detail on the existing application of EU law and ECJ to NI. Much of the announcement of trade was already under progress such as green and red lanes under the Protocol Bill, so to present this as new is misleading.”
A former minister added: “We are all still reading it. Government only released their view of it so we have to read the legal texts. It seems like Rishi has really embellished what he has secured and it sounds a lot better than it actually is so far.”