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LONDON — The Tory Party’s forever war over Europe may finally be drawing to a close.
Weeks of fevered speculation about a premiership-threatening Tory rebellion over Brexit melted away last month after U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced their long-awaited deal on trade in Northern Ireland.
Westminster had been gripped for months by speculation that scores of Conservative MPs could vote against any potential deal the prime minister brought forward to fix the Northern Ireland protocol — a mass rebellion on the scale of the 2019 “Brexit Wars” that brought down Theresa May.
But with the first House of Commons vote on a key part of the Windsor Framework due to take place Wednesday afternoon, it now seems clear that a Brexiteer backlash on that scale is just not coming.
Sunak finds himself in a strong position, having banked a series of quick wins — the Northern Ireland deal, confirmation of the AUKUS nuclear submarine program, and new legislation to stop Channel crossings — which have calmed the hitherto jittery Tory backbenches.
Even the once-mighty European Research Group (ERG) — the infamous caucus of staunch Brexiteer Tory MPs who helped bring down May in 2019 — were still equivocating Tuesday night on whether to rebel against the government at all, despite giving the framework a thorough kicking in a report published earlier that day.
Most Tory MPs have been buoyed by the sense of calm around Sunak’s leadership and are desperate to leave behind the interminable Brexit rows that have plagued British politics for nearly a decade.
“A lot of MPs just want get on with it,” one Remain-supporting Tory MP said. “We also have to listen to what a lot of people and businesses in Northern Ireland are saying — and that is that they want to move on from the drama.”
Sunak’s deal seeks to ease trade friction within the U.K. by scrapping the majority of checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which were required as a part of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The framework also seeks to exclude Northern Ireland from a host of EU regulations — a key concern for Northern Irish unionists who do not want to be separated from the rest of the U.K. — and gives London power to veto new EU regulations in Northern Ireland in certain circumstances.
Such concessions have not been sufficient to win over the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, however, whose eight MPs announced this week they will vote against the deal.
The only question now is how many Brexiteer Tory MPs will follow their lead. Sunak’s aim is to secure passage of the laws without needing the support of the opposition Labour Party, whose leader Keir Starmer has already pledged to vote in favor.
Rebels in the wind
Sunak is helped by the fact the ERG is no longer the unified fighting force it once was.
Its membership was unable to reach an agreed position on who should succeed Boris Johnson as Tory leader last summer, and there are rumors that fewer than 20 of the Conservative Party’s 355 MPs are still aligned with the group.
Suggestions the old band was getting back together to fight another major battle this spring now appear far-fetched. One Brexiteer Tory MP, who will back Sunak’s deal, described how they had turned up to an ERG meeting recently and found no more than 15 people in attendance.
The group has previously been described in its current form as “old grumpy men who seemed to be reliving old battles.”
A greater source of danger to Sunak might have been his two immediate predecessors in No. 10 — Johnson and Liz Truss.
Supporters of the two former leaders have been openly making trouble for Sunak in parliament and forced him into a series of policy U-turns late last year on issues including housebuilding targets, online safety and wind farms.
However, both ex-leaders have remained relatively quiet on the prime minister’s Northern Ireland deal over recent weeks. Johnson, ever the opportunist, made clear during a speech this month that while he disliked the deal overall, he was “conscious of where the political momentum is” — suggesting he was unlikely to start drumming up support for a mass rebellion.
Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson said the former prime minister would only take on Sunak if he sensed blood in the water.
“Rishi Sunak is doing rather well at the moment … so it’s a bit early for [Johnson] to try to steal the show. The party’s chances of pulling off an unexpected victory next year really depend on him continuing to do well,” he said. “I don’t think there’s much mileage for him at the moment in teasing Rishi Sunak.”
Multiple Conservative MPs agreed that most people within the party recognize the need to unite as the next election, which must happen before the end of January 2025, begins to draw near.
And many Conservative MPs, including Brexiteers, have accepted Sunak’s deal as the best the U.K. is ever going to get from the EU.
No one better sums up this attitude than the Northern Ireland minister, and self-described “hard man of Brexit,” Steve Baker. Baker, once a formidable chair of the ERG, said last month that Brexit has “cost me my mental health” and urged the U.K. to “move beyond this awful populism we’ve suffered.”
A third Tory MP, representing one of the all-important “Red Wall” seats in former Labour heartlands which voted Tory in 2019, said “most people are happy with what the PM got in the deal,” and that “most MPs want to move on.”
They insisted that a mass movement of Tory Brexiteers lining up behind the DUP was simply not going to happen.
“If anything, there’s disappointment at the [DUP] for being so ridiculous about it,” they said.
Sunak will hope to bank the win Wednesday and move on. Whether his party can do the same remains to be seen.