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LONDON — In Britain, it’s all gone a bit 2019.
A Conservative prime minister’s tortuous Brexit negotiations are in their endgame. Brexiteer Tory MPs are on tenterhooks, and Westminster is on resignation watch. And just to up the ante a further notch, the Labour Party is offering the government its votes.
As MPs wait to see the fruits of Rishi Sunak’s top-secret negotiations with Brussels, Tory veterans of brutal Brexit battles of recent years fear serious trouble lies ahead.
Publicly, Downing Street still insists no deal has been done over the Northern Ireland protocol, the most contentious part of the Brexit agreement. U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said Monday there would be more talks “in the coming days” with the EU’s chief negotiator Maroš Šefčovič.
Sunak is taking his time to finalize the deal, knowing his political fortunes rest on his ability to sell it to an ever-fractious Conservative Party.
But one former government adviser closely involved in previous Brexit negotiations warned that a strategy of keeping things close until the last minute, and then trying to sell a deal at high speed, comes with “significant risk” for Sunak.
“He’s repeating the tactics that were used by [David] Cameron in negotiating the package prior to the referendum, and by Theresa May, and there is risk in that,” the former adviser said, cautioning that Tory MPs and ministers don’t like feeling they are being “bounced into something” by their leader.
May, of course, eventually resigned in 2019 after repeatedly failing to get the backing of her party for her Brexit plans. Cameron had been forced to quit three years earlier after losing the referendum, having failed to win over much of his party to his cause.
Sunak is acutely aware that his own Cabinet already hosts three prominent Leave-supporting ministers with track records of resigning over Brexit.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris all resigned as Brexit ministers from the May government during 2018 and 2019 over her handling of Britain’s EU departure. A fourth Sunak minister, Steve Baker, who now works alongside Heaton-Harris in the Northern Ireland Office, also resigned as a Brexit minister in 2018.
On Monday, Braverman fired the first Cabinet warning shot over Sunak’s handling of the negotiations, backing ex-prime minister Boris Johnson’s view that the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill — which threatens to unilaterally override parts of the Brexit deal — should not be dropped at the behest of Brussels. Braverman told the BBC the bill, currently on pause in the House of Lords, was “one of the biggest tools we have in solving the problem on the Irish Sea.”
“It’s certainly a resigning matter,” one Brexit-supporting ex-Cabinet minister said of any deal which did not allow Northern Ireland complete control over its own laws, and U.K. courts to be the final arbiter of those. “Given all that many of the Cabinet members have said in the past supporting Brexit. The point is, when push comes to shove — will they stick to their principles, or to their ministerial cars?”
Advisers close to all three Cabinet ministers refused to engage on the question of whether they would resign over a potential deal. Baker also declined to comment. An official close to Heaton-Harris said he was focused on sorting the protocol.
While one Sunak supporter pointed to the loyalty shown by the PM toward Braverman in reappointing her just a week after she was forced out of the Cabinet, and toward Raab over a flurry of allegations of bullying behavior, as evidence they are unlikely to resign.
Heaton-Harris is seen by colleagues as “quite sensible,” while Baker’s “complete Damascene conversion” on Britain’s previous approach to negotiating, as one former Cabinet minister put it, will fuel Downing Street hopes that he is prepared to remain inside the tent this time round.
But they and other senior Brexiteers within government will come under intense pressure from hardline colleagues to take a stand if Sunak’s deal fails to win the all-important support of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, or to remove the role played by the Court of Justice of the European Union in settling disputes.
Others believe any Cabinet resignations would be cynical attempts by Sunak’s rivals to curry the support of the right of the party ahead of a future leadership bid.
“If he does get resignations, it will be somebody using it as an excuse to blow things up to keep the ERG on board,” a second former Cabinet minister said, referring to the European Research Group caucus of hardline Brexiteers.
The European Research Group and Democratic Unionist Party might “scupper a deal anyway,” they added.
No. 10 has been caught in something of a communications trap as it tries to secure a deal.
While the U.K. negotiating team has treated the DUP’s seven tests for any deal as its top priority, according to one British official involved, clamping down on leaks has also been a key part of trying to build trust with the EU. This approach left members of the ERG complaining Friday that they had not had sight of the draft deal, and were feeling left out in the cold.
Another side-effect of No. 10 holding the process so close was that high-profile ERG veterans who have since been put on the frontbench were not privy to any detail before Friday and therefore unable to start providing reassurance to jumpy colleagues.
There are signs, however, that careful efforts were made to start bringing DUP politicians into the fold last week. No. 10 foreign policy adviser John Bew traveled to Northern Ireland two days before Sunak’s surprise visit in order to brief DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, according to well-placed officials.
Donaldson was shown a draft text during meetings on Thursday and Friday, accompanied by colleagues Gordon Lyons and Emma Little-Pengelly, even while most MPs were kept in the dark, the same officials said.
Like May in 2019, Sunak knows his chances of getting a majority of his MPs on board will be heavily influenced by the verdict of the Democratic Unionist Party, which has frozen power-sharing arrangements in the province over its opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol.
“Unless this deal is satisfactory to all communities in Northern Ireland, it won’t be possible, it’s not going to work,” House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt told Sky News on Sunday.
Other high-profile Euroskeptic MPs, including the former Business Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, have already backed the DUP position.
Without DUP support, and the Conservative MP support it would likely bring with it, Sunak would probably require the backing of opposition MPs to get any deal through the House of Commons.
Labour officials are already planning on the basis that Sunak will hold a parliamentary vote, even if one is not technically needed to implement a protocol deal. One said: “It will create more problems if he tries to force it through without one.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer reiterated Monday that his party will support Sunak’s deal if and when that vote comes, though a senior Labour aide warned: “If he has to pass it on the back of Labour votes, that will prove just how weak this prime minister is. It will be a huge embarrassment. There’s no hope of spinning themselves out of that.”
The precedents for Sunak are not good. In 2019 Theresa May faced fury from her backbenchers when she opened negotiations with Labour about winning their support for her deal. Tory MPs are equally clear this time round that a deal with the opposition should never be countenanced.
Speaking to Times Radio, Simon Clarke, a Conservative backbencher and close ally of former Prime Minister Liz Truss, said Monday he thought it would be “a desperately ill-advised course of action for the government” to rely on Labour votes to get the deal through.
The second former Cabinet minister quoted above was blunter in his assessment. “If they try to do this on Labour votes, the prime minister is finished.”
Dan Bloom contributed reporting