Conservative MPs must give the Democratic Unionist Party “time and space” to consider the new Brexit deal, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Tuesday.
Mr Sunak said he was confident the DUP would back it as he urged colleagues not to create another “Westminster drama” after his new Windsor agreement for Northern Ireland was broadly welcomed.
But Conservatives were waiting with “bated breath” to see if the DUP would back the deal, which is hoped to restore power-sharing to Stormont after a year-long absence.
Mr Sunak addressed Tory backbenchers at the 1922 Committee in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening, after a visit to Northern Ireland to try to shore up support.
He was understood to have told Conservative colleagues he had “spent a lot of time” with DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, whose party walked out of Stormont in protest at Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
“And I would just say one thing to you all: we should give him and the DUP time and space,” Mr Sunak said as he acknowledged a “spectrum of views” in the unionist party.
“So let’s not pressure them for an instant answer. Let’s also remember that the last thing the public want is another Westminster drama.”
The framework removes the protocol’s barriers on trade across the Irish Sea and hands a “veto” to politicians in Stormont on EU law — a set of concessions from Brussels that went further than many expected.
But it still includes what Mr Sunak says is a “small and limited” role for the European Court of Justice.
Any resistance to the deal would not result in changes to the framework, because reopening an agreement that took months to negotiate is not seen as a workable solution.
With opposition parties offering support, there is little chance of it failing to receive backing in Parliament when put to a vote, so the DUP will not be effectively handed a veto over the process.
“I cannot see how we will get better than this … this is the deal,.” Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker said after the 1922 meeting.
The arch-Brexiteer, who helped to sink Theresa May’s premiership over her Brexit wrangling, added: “I’m really clear. There isn’t a different deal available. This is what’s been negotiated and it’s good.”
Mr Baker said colleagues in the meeting were “clearly concerned” about whether the DUP would re-enter power-sharing after they walked out over issues including trade barriers imposed by the protocol.
But he believed the DUP will ultimately back the Windsor pact.
“People are worried about the DUP but there’s an earnest sense of relief and support," Mr Baker said.
"I think we all believe he’s done it but now we just wait with bated breath to see if the DUP agrees.
“I recognise this is a very difficult time for the DUP. They’ve got hard choices to make but I believe in the end they will agree with me that this is a good deal for the union in all the circumstances.”
The European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Brexiteers heard from Mr Donaldson at a meeting on Tuesday evening, when they appointed a so-called “star chamber” of lawyers to scrutinise the agreement.
ERG chairman Mark Francois said it would take “around a fortnight” for the “legal eagles” to carry out their audit.
Mr Francois said the Prime Minister took a “steady and sensible pace” when asked if he feared Mr Sunak would hold a vote before the group’s legal analysis was published.
UK and EU strike Brexit deal — in pictures
Lord David Frost, who helped to negotiate the protocol, disputed Mr Sunak’s claim that the Windsor pact meant the UK had “now taken back control”, because EU law “remains supreme”.
The Conservative peer conceded it contained improvements but said it was only “slightly amended” so that regulations from Brussels “bite less tightly”.
“That is worth having, but it isn’t taking back control. Indeed, it may entrench the protocol superstructure rather than weaken it," Lord Frost wrote in The Telegraph.
“That doesn’t mean the deal shouldn’t go ahead. It will help. But it won’t remove the underlying tensions, even if the DUP does decide to go back into Stormont.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Sunak promoted his new Brexit deal as an economic windfall for Northern Ireland on as he sought to seal a major political win.
As unionists in Northern Ireland pondered whether to back the agreement, Mr Sunak told them he was “over the moon” about a deal that “puts you in the driving seat” on remaining EU laws.
Making his sales pitch at a Coca-Cola plant in Northern Ireland, he claimed businesses were “queuing up” to invest in the region once the deal takes effect and “removes any sense of an Irish Sea border”.
He said Northern Ireland's place in the EU single market — which Britain left in 2021 — would make it the world’s “most exciting economic zone”.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak strikes Northern Ireland deal with EU - video
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak strikes Northern Ireland deal with EU
“Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position, a unique position in the entire European continent, in having privileged access to the UK home market, which is enormous … but also the European Union single market,” he said.
“Nobody else has that. No one. Only you guys. And that is the prize.”
US President Joe Biden said the deal was an “essential step” to preserving the gains of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
Without the DUP's support, Mr Sunak would be politically weakened and could fail in his goal of restoring a functioning government to Northern Ireland.
Also being closely watched is former prime minister Boris Johnson, who has yet to comment publicly on Mr Sunak's Windsor Framework.
Absent from a House of Commons debate on Monday, Mr Johnson was seen by The National in Parliament on Tuesday but declined to comment on the deal.
British PM 'over the moon' with Northern Ireland Brexit deal - video
British PM 'over the moon' with Northern Ireland Brexit deal
The leader of the DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson, said Mr Sunak's deal went “some way” to addressing his party's concerns.
But he said the DUP would “take time to study the legal text, to get legal advice on it, and then we’ll come to a conclusion on the agreement as a whole”.
The deal between Mr Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen simplifies trade rules that Britain had complained were too strict.
The Northern Ireland Assembly will be able to request a UK veto of new EU laws, in what Brussels says would be “the most exceptional circumstances”.
“If there’s something that’s really serious, that we think’s going to have a really big impact, and we can’t find any way to resolve it, then we have the ability to say no. We can block it”, Mr Sunak said.
Speaking next to stacks of Coca-Cola cans — his favourite drink — he said Britain had achieved “something really special” by negotiating the veto.
In return, the UK has conceded that the European Court of Justice will continue to have the final say over EU law applying to Northern Ireland.
What is the Windsor Framework? - video
What is the Windsor Framework?
Mr Sunak said on Tuesday there would be a “small and limited role for EU law” in the province.
Britain has also undertaken to drop a bill that would unilaterally scrap parts of the 2019 Brexit agreement.
Prominent Tory MPs backing the deal include former prime minister Theresa May and one-time Brexit hardliner Steve Baker, who said it could “bring this awful rollercoaster row to an end”.
With all eyes on Mr Johnson, Mr Sunak urged calm by saying the deal was not “about me or any one political party … this is about what's best for the people and communities and businesses of Northern Ireland”.
Referring to the 2019 deal that Mr Johnson negotiated and Mr Sunak supported, Mr Sunak said it had been “causing real challenges for people, for families, for businesses in Northern Ireland”.
Mr Sunak, who won personal plaudits from EU officials for his constructive tone, also earned a salute from French President Emmanuel Macron who hailed an “important decision”.
The praise from Mr Biden, who often mentions his Irish ancestry, comes weeks before a rumoured visit to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
He said the US “stands ready to support the region’s vast economic potential”.