Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt has said that any deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland must be supported by the Democratic Unionist Party, as negotiations on the longstanding dispute continue.
Her comments came as former prime minister Boris Johnson warned Rishi Sunak that it would be a “great mistake” to ditch the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, a piece of legislation that gives UK ministers powers to override the 2020 Brexit treaty with the EU.
In recent days, the prime minister has travelled to Belfast and held talks with EU leaders in Munich including European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in an attempt to secure agreement to revise the protocol, which Unionists argue hampers trade between the UK and Northern Ireland.
Speaking on Sunday, Mordaunt said that no deal would work unless it was satisfactory to all communities in Northern Ireland, particularly the DUP, which has outlined seven tests for its co-operation.
The party’s requirements include no border in the Irish Sea, no checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and honouring the “letter and spirit” of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.
“The DUP’s tests that they have referred to are not a random wishlist, they are promises that we have made to the people of Northern Ireland,” the leader of the House of Commons told Sky News. “That is the bar that this deal has to get over and I know that the prime minister is completely focused on that.”
When asked about the role of the European Court of Justice in adjudicating disputes over trade — which was not included in the DUP’s tests but has in the past been opposed by many Tory Brexiters — Mordaunt replied: “The prime minister is focused on removing those practical difficulties, but he has also been talking about the democratic deficit”.
Former Brexit secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg described the DUP’s position as “extremely reasonable”, noting on Sky’s Sophy Ridge programme that the party’s criteria were “absolutely the right tests”.
In a weekend message to his party, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson stressed that at present, progress “currently falls short of what would be acceptable and required to meet our tests as set out” and the party would have to study the fine print of any deal.
Meanwhile, the leader of the House of Commons also appeared to give her backing to Johnson, arguing that the former prime minister’s intervention was a “helpful” reminder to the EU of what the deal “has to deliver”.
“The prime minister, I think, 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,” Mordaunt said. “But it’s always been our preference to try and have a negotiated settlement and that is what everyone is working to.”
However Labour’s former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Peter Mandelson accused Johnson of attempting to “wreck” the deal, telling Sky News: “There’s nothing that Boris Johnson is doing now or, indeed, throughout our recent history with the European Union that could possibly be described as helpful”.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, Sunak reiterated his commitment to collaboration with European allies, stating: “The UK may have left the European Union, it didn’t leave Europe”.
But he warned that there were “real issues” with the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol “for families, for people, for businesses on the ground” and cautioned that a deal may take some time to emerge.
“We are by no means done, there is no deal that is done, there is work to do and that is what we will set about doing,” he said.
Additional reporting by Jude Webber