Eurosceptic Tory MPs have accused Rishi Sunak’s government of “playing fast and loose” by shoehorning a key vote on the prime minister’s Brexit deal on Northern Ireland into a cursory parliamentary debate next week.
Conservative MPs were expecting a vote on the overall Windsor framework agreed last month by the UK and the EU, which is designed to set revised post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
But instead the Commons will be given a series of votes in the coming days on certain elements of the Brexit deal through a type of secondary legislation called a statutory instrument, which is often debated for just 90 minutes.
MPs will on Wednesday vote on the most important of those instruments relating to the so-called Stormont brake, which gives London an effective veto over any new EU laws applying to goods trade in Northern Ireland.
Downing Street this week made clear that it considers the vote on the brake “essentially the vote on the entire deal” given its key role in the wider Windsor framework.
“The Stormont brake we believe is at the heart of the framework. As a point of principle we are not required to bring a vote on the framework overall but obviously the prime minister made a commitment,” Number 10 said.
The government will easily get the legislation through parliament because the Northern Ireland accord is supported by Labour, the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats.
But Downing Street is still wary about the prospect of opposition from hardline Tory Brexiters who belong to the European Research Group, and MPs from the Democratic Unionist party, Northern Ireland’s main unionist party. Its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has called for “further clarification, reworking and change” to the deal.
Number 10 is particularly concerned about the DUP because if it rejects the agreement, the party may continue its boycott of the region’s Stormont assembly, which began in May 2022.
Peter Bone, a Eurosceptic former minister, said it was “bizarre” that the government was not giving a vote on the entire framework.
“A vote on a statutory instrument is not what was promised. Every time the government tries to play fast and loose with parliament, it’s the government that loses out,” he said, adding: “They really shouldn’t be doing that.”
Another Conservative Brexiter MP said the SI vote would in effect be a “meaningful vote” indicating the Commons’ view of the overall deal.
“The concern that a lot of people have is that in an SI debate you can get as little as 90 minutes,” he said. “You can hardly be said to be getting a full exposition of the view of members of the House in such a short time.”
Both the ERG and DUP have yet to say how they will vote next week, although ERG chair Mark Francois has indicated that the group’s “star chamber” of lawyers will publish its already-produced verdict as early as Monday.
Meanwhile former prime minister Boris Johnson has voiced concern about the deal, saying that he would find it “very difficult” to back it.
Johnson faces his own test next Wednesday, when he will appear before the Commons privileges committee. The cross-party group of MPs is investigating whether Johnson lied when he told parliament that he had no knowledge of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street at the peak of the pandemic.