Penny Mordaunt said Boris Johnson’s Brexit intervention is “helpful” as there is “there’s still a lot to be done” to secure a deal over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
In a move that could trigger a new Tory civil war on Brexit, a source close to the former prime minister told Sky News: “His general thinking is that it would be a great mistake to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB).”
This is in relation to controversial legislation introduced by Mr Johnson which gives ministers power to rip up parts of the protocol and ignore EU rules.
Politics live: Labour peer warns ex-PM not to ‘wreck’ negotiations
Mr Sunak is battling to reach a new deal over post Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland to avoid needing the bill, which Brussels has warned is “illegal and unrealistic”.
Asked about the warning from Mr Johnson, the Commons leader told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday (SROS) programme: “Boris is being Boris.
“I wouldn’t say this is a completely unhelpful intervention.
“The prime minister will acknowledge that having the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill there, having the work that the former prime minister did, has helped us get where we are.
“But it has always been our preference to try and have a negotiated settlement and that is what everyone is working to. There’s still a lot to be done.”
Ms Mordaunt is the latest senior politician to warn there is still some way to go yet before a deal is reached, following mounting speculation of a breakthrough in talks.
Rishi Sunak said on Saturday that while Britain and the EU have an understanding on what needs to be done to resolve issues surrounding the protocol a deal is “by no means done”.
Boris ‘should be quiet and not wreck deal’
Labour peer Lord Mandelson told Sky News Mr Johnson should “be quiet” and not seek to “wreck” a deal for the sake of opposing the prime minister.
“There’s nothing that Boris is doing now, or indeed throughout our recent history with the European Union that could possibly be described as ‘helpful’,” said the former Northern Ireland secretary, who was responsible for implementing the Good Friday Agreement.
“He and his supporters want to undermine the prime minister. It’s just a sort of continuation of the fratricidal war that we see in the Conservative Party.”
The government is under pressure to resolve the row which has left Northern Ireland without a functioning devolved government since early last year.
The protocol was agreed between the EU and Mr Johnson as part of the Brexit agreement in 2020 in order to avoid a hard physical border on the island of Ireland.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why does it matter?
Northern Ireland Protocol deal ‘by no means done’ says Rishi Sunak
But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Belfast is angry about the economic barriers to trade it has created on goods moving between NI and the rest of the UK, and is refusing to form an executive at Stormont until it is abandoned or replaced.
Ms Mordaunt stressed any deal to fix the protocol must be supported by the DUP, suggesting it would not work if the European Court of Justice (ECJ) retains an oversight role.
“Unless this deal is satisfactory to all communities in Northern Ireland, it won’t be possible, it’s not going to work,” she said.
“The DUP’s tests that they have referred to are not a random wish list, they are promises that we have made to the people of Northern Ireland. That is the bar that this deal has to get over and I know that the prime minister is completely focused on that.”
The role of the ECJ has been a key sticking point in negotiations, with the DUP and many Tory MPs on the right of the party also opposed to it.
Because Northern Ireland is still subject to EU trade rules, Brussels believes its court should have a heavy involvement in resolving disputes.
While it is understood the EU and UK are close to signing off a deal that would reduce protocol red tape on the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, there is no expectation that Brussels is willing to agree to end the application of EU law in the region.
The EU contends that a fundamental plank of the protocol – namely that Northern Ireland traders can sell freely into the European single market – is dependent on the operation of EU rules there.
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ECJ ‘symbolic issue’ for Tory MPs
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said the role of the ECJ has become a “symbolic” issue for certain quarters of the Tory party and urged the government to take a “common sense” approach to the issue which just “simplifies the process” for trade.
She repeated that Labour would provide “political cover” to Mr Sunak by supporting his deal if he faces trouble from Conservative rebels, saying it is in “the national interest” to find a resolution.
“This is about making Brexit work,” she said.
On the ECJ, she said: “There’s going to have to be some kind of dispute resolution process so we should just be really pragmatic… about approaching that.
“I really hope that that is the approach that ministers are taking.”
However, former business secretary and leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg backed the DUP’s position over the Northern Ireland Protocol as “extremely reasonable”.
He told Sky News the seven tests set out by the DUP in July 2021 “are absolutely the right tests”.
“I think the DUP’s position is extremely reasonable, that it why I am supporting it,” he said.