Blair and Major warn Brexit deal could upset balance in North

Former prime ministers make joint video backing second Brexit referendum

Former UK prime minister John Major has said the latest Brexit deal splits Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Photograph: Tom Honan

Former UK prime minister John Major has said the latest Brexit deal splits Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Photograph: Tom Honan


Former UK prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major have warned that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal could upset the delicate balance in Northern Ireland put in place by the Belfast Agreement. In a joint video for the People’s Vote campaign, which advocates a second Brexit referendum, Mr Major said a border in the Irish Sea would fuel unionist fears.

“It splits Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. And that, of course, always plays on the inherent fears of Northern Ireland, that they’re being ignored, that they’re being maltreated. And those fears are very real. And they need to be addressed and they need to be assuaged,” he said.

The DUP’s 10 MPs will vote against Mr Johnson’s deal when it is put to a vote at Westminster on Saturday, condemning it as “driving a coach and horses” through the Belfast Agreement. But Mr Blair said Brexit meant there had to be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Britain or a hard border between in Ireland. 

“It is a shame and an outrage that peace in Northern Ireland is now treated as some disposable inconvenience to be bartered away in exchange for satisfying the obsession of the Brexiteers with wrenching our country out of Europe, ” he said.

“Either Northern Ireland and its hard-won peace is sacrificed on the Brexit altar, or we end up in the bizarre situation where Northern Ireland stays in Europe’s trading system and Great Britain leaves with a hard Brexit which itself requires years more of Brexit negotiations and distraction from the real issues facing the country.”

Wavering MPs

Mr Johnson was scrabbling for votes at Westminster on Friday night, seeking to persuade hard Brexiteers, anti-Brexit former Conservatives and wavering Labour MPs to back his deal. But the vote faces a potential complication with an amendment tabled by expelled Conservative Oliver Letwin that would reduce its authority.

The government’s motion says that a vote in favour of the deal would count as a “meaningful vote” required under the EU (Withdrawal Act) and satisfy the Benn Act so that the prime minister would not be required to request an extension to the UK’s EU membership.

Mr Letwin’s amendment says the Commons would withhold approval of the deal until all of the legislation implementing it has been passed.

“The purpose of my amendment is, accordingly, to remove from the government’s motion the bits that would have had the legal effect of satisfying the Benn Act conditions and would therefore have removed the need for the PM to seek an extension,” Mr Letwin said.

“My aim is to ensure that Boris’s deal succeeds, but that we have an insurance policy which prevents the UK from crashing out on October 31st by mistake if something goes wrong during the passage of the implementing legislation.”


Former chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond, who is backing Mr Letwin’s amendment, said on Friday that he would not vote for the Brexit deal without assurances about Britain’s future trade policy. Writing in the Times of London, Mr Hammond noted that some Conservative Brexiteers have boasted that Mr Johnson’s deal means that if there is insufficient progress on a free-trade agreement with the EU by the end of the transition period in December 2020, Britain could leave with no deal.

“I haven’t come this far seeking to avoid no-deal in 2019 to be duped into voting for a heavily camouflaged no-deal at the end of 2020,” Mr Hammond said.

Mr Johnson on Friday sought to reassure Labour MPs that the UK would not lower its employment, environmental or consumer standards after Brexit. He said that, apart from commitments included in the Brexit deal’s political declaration, there would be guarantees written into the implementation legislation for the agreement.

“We want the highest standards and highest protections in this country. But I want colleagues on all sides of the house to think about a world tomorrow night in which we’ve got this thing done and we’ve got it over the line. Because I think the nation will heave a great sigh of relief,” he told ITV News. 

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