Blog: Starmer calls on Sunak to stand up to ERG and ‘Brexit purity cult’– as it happened – The Guardian

Starmer calls on Sunak to stand up to ERG and ‘Brexit purity cult’

Keir Starmer has confirmed that Labour will support the government if it secures an agreement with the EU on reform of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Speaking at Queen’s University in Belfast, the Labour leader said it was time for Rishi Sunak to face down hardline Brexiters in the Tory European Research Group (ERG) if they try to block a deal.

Addressing the PM, he said:

Whatever political cover you need, whatever mechanisms in Westminster you require, if it delivers for our national interest and the people of Northern Ireland, we will support you.

The time for action on the protocol is now. The time to stand up to the ERG is now. The time to put Northern Ireland above a Brexit purity cult, which could never be satisfied, is now.

Key events

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  • The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has confirmed he would repeal the controversial Northern Ireland legacy bill if he becomes prime minister. Speaking at an event at Queen’s University Belfast on the second day of his visit to NI, Starmer said it was time for Rishi Sunak to face down hardline Brexiters in the Tory European Research Group (ERG) if they try to block a deal.

  • The UK government is to further delay calling an election in Northern Ireland to give Brexit talks a chance. Senior EU sources said “slow progress” was being made in talks between the UK and Brussels, dampening hopes of a breakthrough by the end of January on the protracted dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol.

  • Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said there was “no indication” from the PM that there would be any additional funding to avert strike action within the NHS. The pair held talks on Thursday evening which she described as “perfectly constructive and cordial”. Sunak said there was “record funding” already going into the NHS, adding that “more is coming”.

  • Sunak has said he is “concerned” about aspects of Holyrood’s gender recognition reform (GRR) bill, which would allow trans people to obtain a gender recognition certificate without the need for a medical diagnosis. The PM declined to say whether Westminster could block the legislation, saying the government is taking advice on the issue “as is completely standard practice”.

  • Inverness and Cromarty Firth green freeport and Forth green freeport have been jointly selected to become Scotland’s first green freeports. Downing Street said the green freeports, backed by up to £52m in government funding, would bring new, high-skilled jobs to Inverness and Cromarty Firth and the Firth of Forth.

  • Downing Street has warned health ministers they will have to find savings from their own budget if they want to offer NHS workers more money in an effort to end the growing wave of strikes. No 10 said there would be no increase in the health department’s budget as ministers look for a way to resolve the protracted industrial dispute.

  • The warning came after the Guardian reported Steve Barclay, the health secretary, had privately conceded he would have to increase the pay offer to NHS staff to get an agreement with health unions. Unions and government officials said this week’s talks were much more positive than those held last year, sparking hope that a resolution can soon be found.

  • The UK culture secretary has said she is “not ruling out” changing the online safety bill to allow regulators to prosecute social media bosses who are found not to have protected children’s safety. Michelle Donelan told the BBC she was open to making changes that have been demanded by dozens of Conservative MPs, saying she would take a “sensible approach” to their ideas.

  • Ukraine is confident Britain will announce it plans to send about 10 Challenger 2 tanks to Kyiv shortly. A formal announcement is anticipated on Monday but Ukrainian sources indicated they understood that Britain had already decided in favour.

  • Boris Johnson has received a donation of £1m from a Thai-based British businessman who had previously given millions of pounds to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, the newly released register of MPs’ interests has shown. The size of the donation, one of the biggest recorded to an individual UK politician rather than a party, and from a strong Brexit supporter, will increase speculation that Johnson could be planning some sort of comeback.

  • Boris Johnson could agree not to challenge Rishi Sunak in exchange for the promise of a safe seat at the next election, the Times has reported, citing friends of Johnson. Johnson could seek to use “leverage” over Sunak if the Tories fare badly in the May local elections, the paper writes, under plans being discussed by a group of Johnson supporters.

The Conservative MP Alicia Kearns has laid down an amendment to the online safety bill that would ban adverts promoting conversion practices, or so-called “conversion therapy”, to anyone under 18.

The amendment states that “content which advertises or promotes the practice of so-called conversion practices of LGBTQ+ individuals must be considered as harmful for the purposes of this section”, ITV News reports.

Nearly 40 Tory MPs, including former cabinet ministers Priti Patel and Iain Duncan Smith, have put their names to an amendment to the bill demanding tougher action against social media bosses if they fail to protect children from seeing damaging content online.

Ukraine confident UK will send Challenger 2 tanks

Ukraine is confident Britain will announce it plans to send about 10 Challenger 2 tanks to Kyiv shortly, a move it hopes will help Germany finally allow its Leopard 2s to be re-exported to the embattled country.

A formal announcement is anticipated on Monday but Ukrainian sources indicated they understood that Britain had already decided in favour, as pressure mounts on Berlin ahead of a meeting of western defence ministers next Friday.

A Challenger 2 tank during a demonstration in September in Bulford, England. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Earlier this week, it emerged that Britain was considering supplying Ukraine with the tanks, following months of requests from Kyiv – with a final decision in the hands of the prime minister, Rishi Sunak.

A handful of Challenger 2s, taken from the UK’s existing fleet of 227, would not in itself make much difference on the battlefield, but it would be the first time any western country has agreed to send its own heavy armour to Ukraine.

Kyiv hopes this will pave the way for Germany to follow. There are more than 2,000 Leopard 2s in Europe, held by armies in 13 countries, but under sale agreements Berlin’s consent is required before any of the German-made kit can be re-exported to Ukraine.

Read the full story here:

While Brexit may have been chased out of the headlines in recent months by the cost of living crisis and the chaos in Westminster, the tectonic plates of public opinion on this deeply divisive issue have been quietly shifting.

The opposition parties have shied away from blaming Brexit for the UK’s woes, but voters’ scepticism about the project has increased through the past 18 months, as the economic outlook has darkened.

As the elections expert Prof John Curtice put it in a blogpost last week, “rather than looking like an unchallenged ‘fait accompli’, Brexit now appears to be a subject on which a significant body of voters has had second thoughts”.

Crucially, his analysis shows that the shift has been mainly driven not by changes in the makeup of the electorate – with younger voters coming of age, for example – but by leavers changing their minds.

By the autumn of 2022, as Liz Truss’s disastrous premiership exacerbated concerns about the state of the economy, support for rejoining the EU had increased to 57%, against 43% preferring to stay out, according to a poll of polls by NatCen social research.

That marked a significant turnaround from mid-2021, when 52% wanted to stay outside and 48% to rejoin – the same margin as in the referendum five years earlier.

Nevertheless, many political analysts say Keir Starmer and the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, have good reason for not placing Brexit’s shortcomings front and centre.

Read the full story here:

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has confirmed he would repeal the controversial Northern Ireland legacy bill if he becomes prime minister.

Starmer was addressing an event at Queen’s University Belfast on the second day of his visit to Northern Ireland:

Keir Starmer says he would repeal controversial Northern Ireland legacy bill if elected PM – video

Downing Street says it hopes there can be a “broad range of agreement” over any deal with the EU to resolve the problems with the Northern Ireland protocol, after Keir Starmer confirmed Labour would support the government if it secured an agreement with the EU on reform of the protocol.

A No 10 spokesperson said the government was working “closely” with Brussels and that it “remains our ambition to try to reach an agreement as soon as we can”.

Rishi Sunak seen visiting the Port of Cromarty Firth in Invergordon, Scotland, following the announcement that areas around Inverness and the River Forth have been awarded green freeport status. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/AFP/Getty Images
Rishi Sunak (centre) during a visit to the Port of Cromarty Firth, Invergordon. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/PA

Here’s the full text from Keir Starmer’s speech in Belfast where he confirmed that Labour will support the government if it secures an agreement with the EU on reform of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Starmer accused some Conservative ministers of being determined “to see our friends in Dublin as adversaries on Brexit”, which he said had damaged the political process in NI.

He said:

There’s no point varnishing the truth, to get beyond the current stalemate we have to make the protocol work. Nobody wants to see unnecessary checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We just need to find a solution.

He called on Rishi Sunak that “if there is a deal to do in coming weeks – do it”, adding:

Whatever political cover you need, whatever mechanisms in Westminster you require, if it delivers for our national interest and the people of Northern Ireland – we will support you.

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

UK to further delay calling Northern Ireland election

The UK government is to further delay calling an election in Northern Ireland to give Brexit talks a chance.

Senior EU sources said “slow progress” was being made in talks between the UK and Brussels, dampening hopes of a breakthrough by the end of January on the protracted dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol.

The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič are to meet on Monday for a “stock take” of progress so far, but sources say significant differences remain on both sides despite the growing momentum.

Under legislation passed by parliament in December, if a new Stormont executive is not formed by 19 January, the government has a legal responsibility to call a snap assembly election by 13 April.

However, it is understood the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, will delay calling the ballot for some weeks as parties advise him an election will not deliver a devolved government until a protocol deal amenable to the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) is struck.

Political leaders including Cleverly, the Irish prime minister and his deputy and the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, descended on Belfast this week to build on momentum and growing optimism about an end to the dispute.

But the DUP and a senior member of the European Research Group of Tory MPs made clear on Thursday major hurdles remained.

Read the full story here:

Boris Johnson could agree not to challenge Rishi Sunak in exchange for the promise of a safe seat at the next election, the Times has reported, citing friends of Johnson.

Johnson could seek to use “leverage” over Sunak if the Tories fare badly in the May local elections, the paper writes, under plans being discussed by a group of Johnson supporters.

“Only two dozen, maybe three dozen at most” Tory MPs wanted Johnson to oust Sunak, one Sunak ally said, adding:

We would just look ridiculous if we changed PM again. Most people get that.

A Johnson ally said the former PM would be in a “strong position assuming we get hammered in May” to agree an informal truce with Sunak to ensure a place in the Commons. The friend said:

He can go to Rishi and say, ‘Give me a seat in exchange for good behaviour.’

Asked if he would offer Johnson a safe seat in return for not challenging his leadership, Sunak dodged the question and said be believed Johnson had “declared his intent to stand in his current seat, in Uxbridge”.

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