Sunak’s Belfast ‘plan’ has left loyal Brexiteers with more questions

Leo Varadkar says he ‘has regrets’ over Northern Ireland Protocol

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Rishi Sunak caught a lot of people on the hop on Thursday evening when it was revealed that he was to make a sudden trip to Northern Ireland to talk to the political parties. Intense speculation rose that a deal was about to be made with the EU over the protracted protocol talks, but nothing came out – and it seems that not much more was gleaned from those in the talks.

A source close to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) told “Basically there was no text, no details just generalities. nothing that could be agreed to or disagreed with.”

Their friends in the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Brexiteer MPs were equally forthright.

The Government had not put anything to them to try and stave off a rebellion and keep the party together in what will prove to be a highly contentious moment for the Sunak government.

The senior ERG source said: “For the avoidance of doubt, we haven’t been told anything about the deal – zilch – and by the sounds of it, neither have most Ministers in the Government either.

“In the end, these things always come down to a detailed, legal text but we haven’t had sight of anything. If Number 10 has a detailed ‘handling plan’ it’s clearly so secret that they haven’t even activated it yet!”

Government sources have made it clear that the proverbial white smoke on a deal is expected next week, possibly Tuesday, with details to follow soon after.

But the ERG plans to get its star chamber of lawyers including Sir Bill Cash and David Jones to pour over any document before they are willing to support it.

But the speculation is that this is now more about Mr Sunak’s protecting his own position as Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader than anything else.

While Mr Cleverly and Mr Sefcovic were holding their talks over lunch there was an acknowledgement from sources that they have really become a sideshow.

A well-placed source said: “Downing Street have taken control of this [the protocol talks].”

Timetables are now the preserve of the Prime Minister’s office and not the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

A senior ERG member noted that civil servant Tim Barrow, who is the National Security Advisor based in Downing Street, appears to now hold the reins.

He warned that it did not bode well.

The MP noted: “Unfortunately we have seen this all before. Back in the May government [then Brexit Secretary] David Davis was supposed to be running the negotiations but then a small, closed team under Olly Robbins took control and everything went badly wrong.

“Tim Barrow, as far as we can see, is the new Olly Robbins.”

So why is Mr Sunak taking charge and why is he being so vague?

Another senior Tory MP answered clearly: “Boris Johnson.”

He said: “The Prime Minister probably only cares about the opinion of one man and that’s Boris.”

As revealed earlier today by, Mr Johnson is about to make a major intervention on the protocol with a big article he is penning at the moment.

It is, according to Tory sources because the former Prime Minister is manoeuvring to get his old job back.

From unveiling his portrait to his tour of summits, interventions on Ukraine and glad-handing in the USA, Mr Johnson has been “positioning himself as the real Prime Minister”, one MP noted

Another ERG source said: “The ERG is wound up. The Boris faction is licking their lips.”

It is understood that political operator and former Downing Street fixer David Canzini is helping Mr Johnson use the fury over a Northern Ireland compromise to launch a potential coup.

As one MP noted: “Canzini is the past master of the dark arts.”

Another ERG said of the oped: “It won’t be all guns blazing, it will be classic Boris. He won’t go out and say the UK has been betrayed, he’ll be a lot more clever than that. It will be something like ‘Rishi, I know you can get a better deal’, while also being out there scheming behind his back.”

Mr Johnson will “then come out swinging” if Rishi doesn’t deliver.

The source said: “Boris is waiting for the locals, but this issue is the perfect springboard for what he wants.”

“We are telling number 10 they’re missing the point. This is not to do with green or red lanes. This is to do with our sovereignty and who makes the laws in our country. The right wing of the party is telling number 10, they are missing the crux of the argument. Rishi seems to be so focussed on the detailed analysis that he’s missing the big picture, which concerns sovereignty and jurisdiction.”

“The Boris faction is going to unite. ERG is going to back the DUP. If anyone’s got any sense in number 10 they need to pull this deal straight away.”

Another MP summed it up: “Rishi cannot drop the ball on this or leave it to James [Cleverly]. He has to take ownership of these talks for his own survival.”

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