The UK and EU are set to sign off on Rishi Sunak’s new Windsor Framework Brexit deal after MPs voted to accept the regulations to implement the Stormont brake component.
A majority of 486 MPs voted to accept the brake, despite opposition from former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Democratic Unionst Party (DUP). Johnson had already voiced concerns about the deal brokered with Brussels earlier this month, and confirmed he would not be backing it when MPs vote on the Stormont brake in the Commons.
The Windsor Framework was agreed by Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on 27 February to change how the Northern Ireland Protocol operates. A so-called emergency “Stormont brake” is a key part of the deal, designed to allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to block any EU law changes coming into force in the region, with No 10 hopeful it will ensure concerns over a “democratic deficit” are addressed.
Sunak called it a “very powerful mechanism” for Stormont to use when it has concerns over EU law, as he heralded the overall deal as a “decisive breakthrough”. But Johnson argued that the proposal would mean the UK as a whole will be unable to “properly take advantage of Brexit”.
In a statement release prior to the vote, he said: “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.
“That is not acceptable. I will be voting against the proposed arrangements today. Instead, the best course of action is to proceed with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, and make sure that we take back control.”
One of the other main points of the deal was to facilitate the flow of goods from the EU and the UK through Northern Ireland. It will see the introduction of two new trade routes in Northern Ireland to simplify the process.
Products which will travel through Northern Ireland to its EU neighbour Ireland will go through a ‘red lane’, meaning products being transported will need to pass all custom checks before they cross the Irish Sea. A ‘green lane’ will also be created to allow products from the UK destined for Northern Ireland to pass through with customs scrapped.
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There were clashes on the Tory benches as Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) said the phrase “pathological denial of reality” came to mind when he listened to veteran eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash. Sir Bill, chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, earlier said laws made in the EU “still apply to and subjugate the people of Northern Ireland to the EU and not to the rest of the UK”.
Conservative MP John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) said: “The Windsor Framework not only restores the balance of the Belfast Agreement, but also offers the province much greater prosperity by way of inward investment, and greater prosperity helps most situations.”
But Tory former minister Mark Francois, who chairs the ERG, asked Mr Heaton-Harris to accept the Stormont brake is not a “veto” but a “route to arbitration”.
DUP MP Jim Shannon (Strangford) said the Windsor Framework was being “shoved” through Parliament and questioned the Conservatives’ commitment to the union. He called the deal the “Windsor knot”, adding: “The United Kingdom gives the EU sovereignty over the courts and power over Northern Ireland.”
Conservative former cabinet minister Dame Andrea Leadsom said: “This Windsor agreement enables a huge opportunity in Northern Ireland not just to be a precious part of our UK, but also to be the target of enormous amounts of foreign direct investment coming into Northern Ireland because it will have the advantage of being an integral part of the UK, but having open access to EU markets as well.”
Tory former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith said: “I believe if we can bank the wins in this deal and secure over time stable powersharing, then we can look forward to decades and decades of overwhelming support for Northern Ireland remaining an integral part of the United Kingdom.”
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is currently blocking devolution at Stormont in protest at the terms of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.
The protocol was designed to prevent a hardening of the land border on the island of Ireland and moved regulatory and customs checks to the Irish Sea, creating economic barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The UK and EU agreed the framework as a way to cut the red tape created by the protocol.
Labour said it would be backing the Windsor Framework agreement signed last month, meaning the government should win the Commons division comfortably, despite criticism from some hardline Tory Brexiteers.
The confirmation by Johnson of his opposition to the UK-EU deal came ahead of his appearance before the Privileges Committee, where he faces a grilling from MPs investigating claims that he knowingly misled Parliament over the partygate affair.
The former PM, who agreed the original Northern Ireland Protocol with Brussels as a way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, had earlier this month indicated that he would find it “very difficult” to support the Windsor agreement.
On Tuesday (21 March), the European Research Group (ERG) said the brake, which is intended to provide a veto on the imposition of new EU regulations in Northern Ireland, is “practically useless” following an analysis of the framework by its “star chamber” of lawyers.
Eurosceptic members have not yet decided how to vote, with the group set to meet later on Wednesday.
Liz Truss is planning to vote against the deal, a source close to the former Prime Minister has said. Truss was understood to believe the PM’s Windsor pact does not “satisfactorily resolve the issues thrown up by” the Northern Ireland Protocol and “almost fatally impinges” on the UK’s ability to diverge from EU rules and regulations.
Downing Street has indicated there could be further votes in the coming weeks on the statutory instruments needed to implement other elements of the framework, but there is frustration among some MPs that Sunak is resisting calls for an overall vote on the whole framework document.
Conservative backbencher Peter Bone said he is “pretty miffed” about the government’s approach to a vote and signalled he could join Johnson in voting against this part of the deal.