Keir Starmer warns PM that Boris Johnson may lead opposition to any deal on NI

Sir Keir Starmer has urged the prime minister to face down Tory Eurosceptics over the Northern Ireland protocol as he predicted Boris Johnson may lead opposition to a compromise deal with the EU.

The Labour leader used a speech in Belfast to tell Rishi Sunak that he will offer him “political cover” to strike an agreement with Brussels, to resolve the impasse over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Sir Keir said there would be “siren voices” on the Conservative benches warning the prime minister against making any compromises, but he said Mr Sunak needed to stand up to the “Brexit purity cult” and take on the anti-EU European Research Group (ERG) in order to resolve the issues over Irish Sea trade.

The opposition leader predicted that any Conservative revolt against a deal might be led by those who negotiated the protocol in the first place.

The protocol was struck by the then prime minister Boris Johnson and the EU in 2019 as a means to unlock the deadlock on delivering Brexit.

In order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, it moved customs and food safety checks and process to the Irish Sea, creating economic and administrative barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The protocol is vehemently opposed by many unionists and the DUP is currently blocking the functioning of a devolved government in Belfast in protest at the arrangements.

The region’s main unionist party claims the protocol has undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the union without the consent of the unionist community.

Sir Keir told an audience at Queen’s University that unionist anger about the protocol was “more than justified” as he pledged to support any deal Mr Sunak could reach with the EU that reduced the Irish Sea checks.

But he predicted the prime minister will face opposition from those within his own ranks who want to see the protocol scrapped altogether.

Draft legislation introduced by Mr Johnson’s government, which would empower ministers to unilaterally rip up the arrangements without the approval of Brussels, is currently making its way through parliament.

However, UK-EU relations appear to have improved since Mr Sunak became prime minister and both sides have been talking up the potential of an agreed deal to resolve the impasse.

It remains to be seen whether any agreement between London and Brussels would be enough to convince the DUP to return to powersharing.

The UK and EU are keen to see devolution restored before April’s landmark 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s historic Good Friday Agreement.

“In the coming weeks, it’s possible there will be siren voices in Westminster that say again, there is another path, a path that doesn’t require compromise on the protocol,” said Sir Keir.

“In fact, it’s possible those siren voices will include, may even be led by, the very people who created the protocol, that were cavalier with the constitutional settlement of this United Kingdom, that came to this island and acted, to be blunt, in bad…

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