Brexit deal hangs in the balance as Johnson tries to marshal a majority

Former PMs Tony Blair and John Major warn Irish Sea border could fuel unionist fears

British prime minister Boris Johnson: With  hardline Brexiteers still undecided and  expelled Conservatives divided over how to vote, the outcome is expected to depend on a handful of votes. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

British prime minister Boris Johnson: With hardline Brexiteers still undecided and expelled Conservatives divided over how to vote, the outcome is expected to depend on a handful of votes. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

The fate of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal hung in the balance on Friday night as he sought to assemble a majority for it ahead of a crucial vote at Westminster.

With a number of hardline Brexiteers still undecided and a group of expelled Conservatives divided over how to vote, the outcome is expected to depend on a handful of votes.

“I suppose what I would say to friends and colleagues in the House of Commons is: Look, you know, this has been a long, exhausting and quite divisive business, Brexit,” the prime minister told the BBC on Friday night.

“I think it’s a great agreement, it takes us forward and it gets us out of the backstop.”

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

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“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.

Complication

The vote faces a potential complication with an amendment tabled by expelled Conservative Oliver Letwin that would defer Westminster’s approval of the deal until after all its implementation legislation had been passed.

In Brussels, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that although Ireland would be favourable towards any request, MPs should not assume there will be an extension if they vote to reject the deal today.

“Our point of view has always been that we would be open to it, but it would be a mistake to assume that it’s a guarantee, given that it requires unanimity by all 27 member states.”

If there is a risk we are taking, the risk we are taking is one on democracy

The Taoiseach moved to reassure unionists about the constitutional implications of the new Brexit deal, saying at the conclusion of the EU summit in Brussels that “the queen will still be the queen, the pound will still be the pound , people will still post letters in Royal Mail red letterboxes”.

Hardening

Mr Varadkar said that he was “confident” Stormont would not vote to leave the special arrangements agreed in the new deal and precipitate a hardening of the Border.

“If there is a risk we are taking, the risk we are taking is one on democracy and saying to the people of Northern Ireland that you determine your future and that is something I can stand over,” he said.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: “If Leo Varadkar thinks unionism is just about red post boxes then he is either very ill-informed or else just wishes to be offensive.”

He complained that “a new trade barrier will have been erected between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom without the consent of anyone who lives here”.

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