Blog: Rishi Sunak must defy Tory ‘Brexit purity cult’ to get protocol deal, says Starmer – The Independent

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Rishi Sunak must stand up to the “Brexit purity cult” inside the Conservative party to reach a deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol, Sir Keir Starmer will warn.

The Labour leader will use a speech in Belfast to urge the prime minister to take on the Brexiteers in the Tories’ European Research Group (ERG) in order to resolve the row over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Sir Keir will say he will offer “political cover” at Westminster if Mr Sunak can deliver a compromise agreement with the EU to ease trade barriers which is in the national interest.

“The time for action on the protocol is now. The time to stand up to the ERG is now,” Sir Keir will say on Friday. “The time to put Northern Ireland above a Brexit purity cult, which can never be satisfied – is now.”

After speaking to party leaders in Northern Ireland on Thursday, Sir Keir is set to warn that there is only a “small window of opportunity” to resolve the row before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.

Any deal seen as conceding too much to Brussels could trigger a revolt on the Tory benches, but Sir Keir will offer Labour “support” to Mr Sunak.

“Whatever political cover you need, whatever mechanism in Westminster you require, if it delivers for our national interest and the people of Northern Ireland, we will support you,” he will say in the speech at Queen’s University.

The Labour leader will call on the PM to recognise the mistakes made by some Tory ministers who had viewed the Irish government as “adversaries” on Brexit. “That has damaged the political process here in Northern Ireland – no question. And it’s certainly not the spirit of 1998.”

It comes as Irish premier Leo Varadkar criticised foreign secretary James Cleverly’s refusal to allow Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald to attend a meeting with party leaders in Belfast on Wednesday.

“I know that deputy McDonald has attended similar meetings in the past organised by the British government and if it is a change, I don’t think it is a positive one,” said Mr Varadkar.

In a row which threatened to overshadow talks aimed at restoring an executive at Stormont, Mr Sunak’s Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris defended the decision not to invite Ms McDonald to the meeting.

Mr Heaton-Harris said it may not have been wise to have the Sinn Fein president, who is the leader of the opposition in the Republic, because she is a “representative of a parliament in an EU member state”.

The Sunak government has also suggested that, due to diplomatic protocol, Mr Cleverly could not meet Ms McDonald before he had met his counterpart in Ireland, Micheal Martin. But Mr Martin said he would have had no issue with the Sinn Fein leader attending the meeting.

The protocol was agreed by then-prime minister Boris Johnson to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.

But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – staunchly opposed to the trade barriers it has created between Northern Ireland and mainland Great Britain – is refusing to engage with power-sharing at Stormont until it is dramatically altered.

Mr Cleverly has said talks with the EU Commission to resolve the protocol dispute were moving “pretty fast” – suggesting that the Sunak government wanted a deal before the 25th anniversary Good Friday Agreement in April.

But DUP Jeffrey Donaldson said on Thursday that after meeting Mr Cleverly he did not think the two sides were “anywhere close to a deal” on the protocol.

Labour has suggested a new veterinary agreement for trade in agricultural products between the UK and EU, which it claims would eliminate many of the checks, while a trusted trader scheme could also avoid some bureaucracy.

Sir Keir will also use the speech to hail the Good Friday Agreement as “the greatest achievement of the Labour Party in my lifetime, without question … But of course, the real achievements – the real pride – belongs to the people and communities here in Northern Ireland”.

The Labour leader also rejected a call by Labour mayor of London Sadiq Khan for a “pragmatic debate” on the idea of UK rejoining the EU single market.

Mr Khan said it was time to stop the “denial and avoidance” of the “immense damage” Brexit is doing to the economy.

Asked about the comments in Belfast, Sir Keir said: “Look, we have left the EU and there is no case for re-joining the EU or for going back into the single market. But what I do think we need to do is move beyond what I think is a pretty inadequate deal… and make Brexit work.”

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