Boris ‘will be convinced’ to back Ireland deal says Heaton-Harris
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Boris Johnson’s former chief whip has claimed he could convince the former Prime Minister to back Rishi Sunak’s new deal on post-Brexit trading agreements in Northern Ireland. Mr Johnson last week launched a furious tirade against the new PM’s pact with the EU, claiming it ceded too much power to the bloc.
Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge, now-Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he had a “couple of conversations” with his former boss about the new agreement.
He said that as his former chief whip, “by the time we get to the vote, I like to think I’d have cunningly persuaded him that he actually needs to vote for the deal”.
Last week during his keynote speech at the Global Soft Power Summir 2023, Mr Johnson furiously harangued Mr Sunak’s deal, which had until that point seen almost universal praise.
The former PM said: “When I looked at the deal we have, I have mixed feelings. I’m conscious of where the momentum is.”
He added: “I will find it very difficult to vote for something like this myself, because I believe we should have done something different, no matter how much plaster came off the ceiling in Brussels.”
Mr Johnson said “we’ve got to hope that it works”, and that he understands why people want to “move on” from the arguments over Brexit and accept the deal. “I get that,” he said.
But, referring to the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – which has been ditched by Mr Sunak – the former Tory leader added: “If it doesn’t work, I hope we have the guts to deploy that bill again.”
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, proposed by Mr Johnson, was his solution to the problems created by the Brexit deal he arranged with the EU in order to take Britain out of the bloc.
In the original Brexit deal, Northern Ireland was kept in the EU single market for goods – effectively creating a border in the Irish Sea between it and the rest of the UK, something which Mr Johnson promised would only happen “over my dead body.”
The former PM’s solution was the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would allow the UK to act unilaterally against EU legislation in the devolved country – prompting the bloc to threaten a trade war in response.
Now Mr Sunak’s deal works more closely with Brussels, getting around the thorny issue of differing regulations in EU and UK markets by introducing “red” and “green” lanes to distinguish goods destined to remain in Britain and those going abroad.
Pressed if he would actually be able to convince Boris of to accept the deal, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “Boris is a law unto himself in many ways, but he’s a great man, a wise man, an honest man and I believe he’ll come to see that it’s a good idea.”
Last Thursday, following Mr Johnson’s tirade against the new deal, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “We have never said this is the perfect solution, but it is a better option than the Protocol Bill, which kept automatic alignment with EU law for red lane trade at Northern Ireland ports and kept the full jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in international law.”
The Northern Ireland Secretary also offered a defence of his former boss after a Privileges Committee report found that evidence strongly suggested breaches of coronavirus rules would have been “obvious” to Mr Johnson.
he said Mr Johnson is “100%” a man of integrity, adding: “I do not believe for one second Boris knowingly misled Parliament. I don’t think he will be found to have misled Parliament. In this country, you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty. I’m absolutely convinced Boris did not knowingly mislead Parliament.”
He later repeated his defence on the Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme.
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When pressed on whether this is the official Government line, he replied: “I don’t think there’s a Government official position. There’s a parliamentary process going on. And I think we would wait to see what came out of that parliamentary process.”
The cross-party committee inquiry on Friday said the Commons may have been misled at least four times, with MPs set to cross-examine Mr Johnson later this month.
According to the written evidence in the committee’s interim report, Mr Johnson remarked that a mid-pandemic leaving party in No10 was “probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”.
Meanwhile, WhatsApp messages given to the inquiry show advisers “struggling” with how parties were within the rules, with one conceding an excuse “blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account”.
While Mr Johnson strangely suggested he had been “vindicated” by the committee’s report, it added: “The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.
“There is evidence that those who were advising Mr Johnson about what to say to the press and in the House were themselves struggling to contend that some gatherings were within the rules.”
Mr Johnson is expected to give oral evidence as part of the inquiry, in a session broadcast live on television, in the week starting March 20. If found to have lied to Parliament and suspended for more than 10 days, he could be forced to face a by-election.
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