Two former UK prime ministers, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, said they would vote against a key feature of Rishi Sunak’s new post-Brexit deal with the EU, in a sign that a rebellion by members of his own party may be bigger than anticipated.
Members of Parliament will vote on the so-called Stormont Brake, one part of a new UK-EU framework for trade with Northern Ireland, following a debate on Wednesday. Sunak is expected to win the vote, which would move him a step closer to repairing ties with the EU, the UK’s biggest trading partner.
However, the prime minister is hoping to win with only limited opposition from his own party. Any sizeable rebellion — including backers of Johnson, Truss and a strongly pro-Brexit faction of Conservative MPs known as the European Research Group — could mean he relies on opposition Labour Party votes to get the measure through, a symbolic blow for Sunak.
Wednesday began with Sunak’s two most recent predecessors both coming out against his deal.
“The proposed arrangements would mean either that Northern Ireland remained captured by the EU legal order — and was increasingly divergent from the rest of the UK — or they would mean that the whole of the UK was unable properly to diverge and take advantage of Brexit,” Johnson said in a statement. “That is not acceptable. I will be voting against the proposed arrangements today.”
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A spokesman for Truss said she would also vote against the plan for the same reasons as Johnson.
Their decision adds to the numbers of those opposing the new deal, known as the Windsor Framework, which aims to address issues in Northern Ireland created by post-Brexit arrangements.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the pro-Brexit ERG called the Stormont Brake measure “practically useless,” and indicated that the overall deal meant EU law would remain supreme in Northern Ireland. The ERG did not say whether its members would vote as one against the measure.
The deal has already been rejected by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who say it doesn’t go far enough to solve their concerns and isn’t sufficient to encourage them to re-join the region’s devolved government.
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Johnson Under Scrutiny
As the vote unfolds, Johnson — the man who became prime minister thanks to Brexit — will seek to save his reputation by giving evidence to a committee investigating whether he deliberately lied to lawmakers over “Partygate,” a series of lockdown-busting gatherings held in Downing Street during the pandemic.
Johnson could be temporarily suspended from Parliament and face a recall election if the committee finds against him. That would be a significant blow to any chances he may have of a political comeback, and a boost to Sunak, the current occupant of No. 10.
The coincidence of the Brexit vote and Johnson’s committee hearing falling on the same days renew the focus on two key unresolved issues still hanging over Sunak. Both carry risks for the current prime minister.
Johnson’s testimony promises to rehash stories of alcohol-fueled parties in 10 Downing Street during the coronavirus pandemic and turn the focus back onto actions of the Conservative government — of which Sunak was a senior member. Sunak himself was fined for attending one of the gatherings.
If he is found in contempt of Parliament by the committee, which won’t reach a verdict Wednesday, Johnson could face a recall election in his Uxbridge constituency. That would test Sunak’s party, which still faces a double-digit polling deficit versus Labour, though the gap may be narrowing.
On the other hand, if the committee clears Johnson it will renew talk of a potential comeback. The former leader still enjoys significant support on the Conservative backbenches, and is deemed by some as the only leader who could win another general election for the Tories.
On Tuesday Johnson denied the allegation that he deliberately misled Parliament, publishing evidence in his defense and saying he’d acted in “good faith.” He is due to appear before the parliamentary committee from 2 p.m. London time.
“I accept that the House of Commons was misled by my statements,” Johnson said. “But when the statements were made, they were made in good faith.”