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A group of hardline Brexiteer Tory MPs have labelled a key element of Rishi Sunak’s post-Brexit deal with the EU “practically useless”.
The European Research Group (ERG) revealed its scathing verdict about the compromise agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol struck last month, following analysis by its “star chamber” of lawyers.
But ERG chair Mark Francois refused to say how members will vote on the so-called Stormont brake when MPs get their say in the Commons on Wednesday.
In a statement, Mr Francois claimed EU law “will still be supreme in Northern Ireland” and said the so-called green lane to ease checks on goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland “is not really a green lane at all”.
He said the ERG lawyers also thought that the Stormont brake “is practically useless” and said Mr Sunak’s agreement with Brussels “has no exit other than through a highly complex legal process”.
The Stormont brake would allow a minority of politicians at the Northern Ireland Assembly to flag concerns about new EU laws in Northern Ireland, a move that could see the UK government veto their introduction.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has already said it will vote against Mr Sunak’s Windsor Framework on Wednesday. Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said the Stormont brake does not deal with “fundamental problems” at the heart of the protocol.
The DUP is currently blocking powersharing arrangements at Stormont in protest of the protocol, and one of the party’s hardliner, Sammy Wilson MP, said on Tuesday that his party will “continue the fight” against Brexit trade barriers.
Any backbench Tory rebellion is unlikely to put the fate of the UK-EU agreement in jeopardy – but a revolt of 35 to 40 Tory MPs could see Mr Sunak forced to rely on the support of Labour in getting his deal passed.
The ERG group’s report is highly critical of parts of the deal, saying it “makes only limited legal changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol” and does not permit any changes to “essential elements”.
Mr Francois said the government’s claim that this amounts to a new framework or structure for the protocol “is not correct”.
But, noting secondary legislation on the Stormont brake was only published on Monday, he said the group will not be “hoisted by our own petard” – and would meet again before PMQs on Wednesday.
“Because we need to allow people time to digest this, the ERG will be meeting again tomorrow… once people have had an opportunity to digest all this documentation,” he said. “We as a group will discuss what attitude, if any, to take.”
Tory MPs have dismissed the ERG as a much-diminished force. Brexiteer Martin Vickers told The Independent he thought that no more than 20 hardliners in the ERG might vote against the deal. “The vast majority want to support it. It’s time to move on.”
On Tuesday EU member states gave their approval to key changes to the protocol agreed in the Windsor Framework by Mr Sunak and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen last month.
Foreign secretary James Cleverly will meet the EU Commission’s Maros Sefcovic in London on Friday to formally adopt the Windsor pact on Friday.
Downing Street warned Tory rebels and the DUP on Tuesday that the Windsor Framework is the “only avenue” to change the current default in Northern Ireland, which is “automatic alignment” with the EU.
The PM’s official spokesperson said that “any change to EU rules on goods would automatically apply in Northern Ireland without any say for Stormont. A vote against the brake, in factual terms, would lead to automatic alignment with the EU with no say at all.”