LONDON — Euroskeptic Conservatives will hold an 11th-hour meeting on Wednesday after failing to decide whether to back Rishi Sunak’s new Brexit deal.
After three weeks of deliberations, a ‘Star Chamber’ of lawyers convened by the European Research Group today gave a withering verdict on the Windsor Framework, arguing it will keep EU law supreme in Northern Ireland.
ERG chairman Mark Francois said a green lane for goods to avoid checks was “not really a green lane at all,” and that the Stormont Brake — meant to allow the Northern Ireland devolved assembly the power to challenge EU laws applying to Northern Ireland — is “practically useless.”
“The framework itself has no exit, other than through a highly complex legal process,” he added. Asked if the ERG had been “misled” about its contents, Francois said: “I am going to leave that to others to judge.”
But despite issuing a 52-page assessment, the ERG did not conclude today how it will direct its members in a key Commons vote on the framework — or whether it will direct them to vote as a bloc at all.
Instead a further meeting will be held on Wednesday morning, hours before the vote, once MPs have had time to digest the document.
Francois refused to say whether the ERG will direct its members to vote against the government.
One ERG member — who asked for anonymity — said when “meaningful votes” were held on Theresa May’s Brexit plans in 2018, the ERG gave a view but “individual members made up their own minds. That is probably what will happen this time.”
The member said it was “not too late” for the prime minister to return to Brussels to ask for amendments.
Rishi Sunak’s decision to hold a vote only on one legal element of the proposals, with 90 minutes’ debate, has unsettled some MPs.
But whatever the ERG’s verdict, Wednesday afternoon’s vote will pass thanks to Labour support.
The decision will be made on a statutory instrument encoding the ‘Stormont Brake’ element of the framework, which aims to give the currently-frozen Northern Ireland Assembly more say over EU laws under the post-Brexit set-up.
The Democratic Unionist Party has said it will vote against the plan. Its leader Jeffrey Donaldson said on Monday there “remain key areas of concern which require further clarification, re-working and change”.
But other potential critics, such as Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, have not come out in full-throated opposition, in a boost to the prime minister. The eventual size of any Tory rebellion remains shrouded in mystery. ERG members outside the meeting declined to give a firm figure of how many active members the group has.
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