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Senior Tory Brexiteer David Frost has begrudgingly backed Rishi Sunak’s post-Brexit deal with the EU to reform the Northern Ireland Protocol, but said it was a “bitter pill” to swallow.
It comes as splits emerged in the DUP over whether to accept the deal and return to powersharing at Stormont, with unionist hardliner Sammy Wilson criticising key parts of the compromise.
Lord Frost, Boris Johnson’s former Brexit negotiator, said the changes agreed by the PM and EU Commission were “all worth having” – but claimed the government was “overclaiming” the merits of the agreement.
“The deal leaves a slightly amended protocol and EU law in place in Northern Ireland and the EU has agreed to change its own laws so that they bite less tightly,” the Tory peer wrote in The Telegraph.
“That is worth having, but it isn’t taking back control,” he added. “Indeed, it may entrench the protocol superstructure rather than weaken it … [The protocol] is slightly amended but remains in place, and EU law remains supreme in Northern Ireland.”
Lord Frost said his criticism “doesn’t mean the deal shouldn’t go ahead”, but added: “It leaves the government still only partly sovereign over all its territory. Just as in 2019, that is a bitter pill to swallow.”
It comes as Sammy Wilson, a senior DUP MP, said the so-called “Stormont Brake” – part of the deal which gives Northern Ireland the power to reject changes to EU goods rules – “is not really a brake at all”.
Mr Wilson told Times Radio that it was the UK government that had final say over whether Stormont could veto any future law – predicting ministers would be reluctant to do so because of fears of “retaliatory action” from the EU.
“I think it will have to be used on lots of occasions, though I suspect to be fairly ineffective,” Mr Wilson said on the break, before adding: “We will not have a knee jerk reaction to this deal. We have got to give it real consideration.”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, viewed as a moderate figure, reportedly pointed out disparities between the UK and EU interpretations of the deal as he met Tory MPs in European Research Group (ERG) last night.
The unionist party is said to split between members in the assembly keen to restore power-sharing and the MPs who are more hardline. DUP officials told Politico it could be weeks, or even months, before they reach a verdict on whether to return to Stormont.
“The deal on offer is probably at the upper end of realistic expectations,” a unionist source told The Times. “But there are lots of unrealistic expectations within the party as well.”
Mr Sunak is understood to have told the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers last night that there was a “spectrum of views” within the DUP over whether to support the team – as he again urged that the unionist party is given “time and space”.
Mark Francois, the chairman of the ERG, said it could take as long as a fortnight for the Tory Brexiteer group to carry out its own “legal audit” of the deal.
The prime minister is not prepared to make any changes to his landmark deal as he stares down the DUP and critics and on his own backbenches.
No 10 said that the government believed it had secured “the right deal for all parties”, while Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker warned last night: “This is the deal … there is not a different deal available”.
Mr Johnson has been urged to “put up or shut up” over the deal, after he was said to be considering joining any revolt of Eurosceptics. But several MPs told The Independent they expected a rebellion to be limited to 20 of the staunchest hardliners “at the most”.
One senior Tory MP told The Independent: “Boris needs to stop playing games and realise this is all over. It’s time to be magnanimous and embrace the fact it’s a really good Brexit deal.”
Allies of Mr Johnson told The Times he would not oppose Mr Sunak’s deal because it would “look silly” rebelling with only 10 to 15 people.