Rishi Sunak ‘confident’ only 20 Tory MPs could rebel against Brexit deal in crunch vote
Tory MPs in the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteers have been told in a lengthy legal analysis today that the Brexit deal struck by Rishi Sunak on Northern Ireland fails on all its red lines and increases the power of the EU over Britain. In a blow to the Prime Minister, the star chamber of legal and constitutional experts chaired by Sir William Cash has said the deal “doubles down” on the hated Protocol and describes his vaunted Stormnont Brake as “practically useless”.
The 54-page document presented to the ERG members this morning warns that the Windsor Framework does not restore UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland or meet any of the group’s red lines.
It follows the announcement yesterday that the Democratic Unionists (DUP) will also reject the deal and vote against it tomorrow when the government asks Parliament to approve the so-called Stormont Brake, which would give Northern Ireland a veto over EU rules.
With around 50 Conservative MPs attending the two previous ERG meetings on the deal, it has raised the possibility that Mr Sunak may need Labour votes to get his deal through Parliament.
However, that could depend on a meeting tomorrow morning after ERG members “have had time to digest the report”.
Sir William’s star chamber of experts – including Martin Howe KC, Barnabus Reynolds and ERG deputy chairman David Jones – have issued a series of damning conclusions.
Rishi Sunak’s deal has been severely criticised by Brexiteers (Image: Getty)
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On sovereignty, they said: “Northern Ireland remains subject to the power and control of EU law, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) and EU administrative organs (such as the European Commission) in respect of goods and ancillary matters.
“EU State aid law (below) continues to apply across the whole of the UK in respect of aid which may affect Northern Ireland.”
Noting that the two main objectives sought in renegotiating the deal are not achieved, they said: “The rights of the people of Northern Ireland under the Acts of Union 1800 are not restored.
“The hard border remains between the two different legal systems, which comprise those of (a) Great Britain, and (b) the newly created EU law regime in Northern Ireland.”
Sir Bill Cash’s star chamber has a number of warnings about the deal (Image: Getty)
On “doubling down” on the existing Northern Ireland Protocol, they said: “The UK provides new commitments and undertakings which reaffirm and embed the status and structures of the Withdrawal Agreement and its NI Protocol.”
In a particularly damning verdict, they noted: “The Government commits to stopping the progress of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill which, if enacted, would allow for the restoration of UK sovereignty in Northern Ireland.”
The group also utterly dismissed claims that EU law will be disapplied in Northern Ireland.
They noted: “Claims in the UK Command Paper that the Windsor deal will lead to EU laws being ‘disapplied’ or ‘removed’ from Northern Ireland are not correct.”
In particular, they accused the government of not being able to provide the laws which would no longer apply.
The assessment stated: “An important claim is made in the UK Command Paper that 1,700 pages of EU law have been disapplied; and that this means that less than three percent of EU rules are applicable in Northern Ireland.
“Despite questions posed to the Government, we have been unable to verify these claims.”
James Cleverly and EU Commissioner Maros Sefcovic carried out most of the talks (Image: Getty)
The star chamber questioned whether so-called easings on checks will benefit companies in anything but a limited fashion and warn that small companies in particular will struggle to benefit from them.
In a warning that the deal will not conclude the problems, they pointed out that any deregulation or implementation of Brexit freedoms are likely to provoke a fresh round of talks.
They said: “Future deregulatory efforts in the UK, e.g. under the Retention of EU Law Bill, will call into question whether new checks will be required, triggering a fresh negotiation.”
And in a warning which could panic many Brexiteers, they added that the deal could push governments to simply comply with EU rules.
They said: “The Windsor arrangement risks incentivising the UK and its future governments to copy future EU rules, and adjustments to existing EU rules, so as to avoid the imposition of new checks across the Irish Sea.”
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said the DUP are united in opposition to the deal (Image: Getty)
The deal, according to the analysis, would also fail to provide Northern Ireland with shared tax breaks on VAT and excise which Mr Sunak has promised.
“These arrangements amount to limited and specific relaxations in EU law applicable to VAT and excise in Northern Ireland, but they fall well short of restoring to the UK the right of an independent country to decide on its tax structures and set its tax rates as it might wish across the country.”
The experts also claimed it has other father reaching consequences which could affect the whole of the UK preventing a new state aid regime to help out UK industry.
“The Windsor deal continues to accept the reach of EU State aid law and the jurisdiction of the EU Commission and the ECJ, not just over Northern Ireland but also over the whole of the UK.
“By accepting the continuation of the NI Protocol’s imposition of EU State aid law over Great Britain, the government has removed much of the benefit that the UK would otherwise have won from its faster, more flexible, more certain subsidy control regime under the Subsidy Control Act 2022.”
Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen agreed the deal in Windsor (Image: Getty)
Finally, the key part of the Windsor Framework is torn apart as the experts dismissed the Stormont Brake supposedly available for the Northern Ireland Assembly as an already failed model.
They pointed out that a similar deal offered to Norway in 2011 collapsed by 2013 because it was unworkable.
The expert panel noted: “The ‘brake’ is of very narrow application in theory and is likely to be useless in practice.”
After the ERG heard the report’s presentation, chairman Mark Francois said: “I would like to thank the Star Chamber, Chaired by Sir Bill Cash MP and ably supported by Martin Howe KC, Barnabas Reynolds and David Jones MP for their diligent and thorough examination of the legal implications of the Windsor Framework.
“The Star Chamber’s principal findings are: That EU law will still be supreme in Northern Ireland; The rights of its people under the 1800 Act of Union are not restored; the ‘green lane’ is not really a ‘green lane’ at all; the Stormont Brake is practically useless and the framework itself, has no exit, other than through a highly complex legal process.”
Mark Francois is chairman of the ERG (Image: Getty)
Asked how the ERG would vote, Mr Francois said that the group would meet again tomorrow morning.
He told journalists: “The DUP have made their position very plain – they’re going to vote against. We, to some degree have been critical of the government for not allowing people enough time to digest everything.
“So for instance the SI and the explanatory notes only came out yesterday, so we don’t want to be hoist by our own petard.”
He went on: “Because we need to allow people time to digest this, the ERG will be meeting again tomorrow in this room at the same time, once people have had an opportunity to digest all this documentation.
“We as a group will discuss what attitude – if any – to take and we’ll be having that meeting just before PMQs.”
He added: “The group hasn’t taken a decision yet and ultimately – this has always been our way – it will be down to every individual colleague in the group.”
But a senior ERG source told the press the group is “unlikely to reach a joint decision.”
Daily Express: The DUP have said that progress was made with the Windsor Framework, but reading this it’s incredibly negative. Does the ERG recognise any progress with the new framework whatsoever?
It does refer to ‘easings’ there are easings of the arrangements for trade, but these are all at the behest of the EU, the EU can pull the plug anytime they want.
The ERG source said the number of ERG members fluctuates, however it is less than the number of MPs concerned with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Stormont looks unlikely to reconvene (Image: Getty)
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It’s obviously for parties in Northern Ireland to make a decision on power-sharing. I don’t think that is necessarily dictated by events tomorrow.
“We do think the Stormont Brake is important and the most significant part of the framework and we continue to urge parliamentarians to back it.”
“Broadly, this is a good deal for the people of Northern Ireland, a good deal for the businesses of Northern Ireland. It goes significantly beyond the previous protocol.”
Respondinf to the ERG saying that the Stormont Brake is “useless”, the spokesman added: “This is a significant step-change in what had previously had been agreed that fundamentally restores or deals with the democratic deficit that existed under the protocol or beyond.
“Just to emphasise, the EU has no role in deciding whether the brake is used or agreeing whether the rule is disapplied. It’s up to MLA’s in the Northern Ireland assembly to decide whether to trigger the brake to notify the UK government.
“If it is triggered the rule is suspended automatically from coming into effect.
“If there is a dispute that is is matter for independent arbitration to the ECJ. So we think that is a significant measure that goes far beyond what was previously available.”