Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been accused by Boris Johnson’s allies of intending to take a soft line with Brussels in the row over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade deals if he becomes Premier minister.
Sunak, who currently enjoys the strongest support among MPs in the Tory leadership race, sought to reassure Eurosceptic Tories on Sunday that he would take a tough stance on Brexit and “capitalize on the freedoms” that he was offering.
But Johnson’s supporters are determined to arrest Sunak, who they believe betrayed the prime minister, and are now mounting a sustained information campaign against him.
Many support Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, who is struggling to gain momentum as the leadership race enters its final parliamentary stages. This week, Tory MPs will vote to finalize a two-person shortlist from which party members will then choose the winner. Johnson’s successor will be announced on September 5.
A minister close to Johnson has claimed Sunak will change policy on the Northern Ireland Protocol – a key part of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal with the EU which outlines the region’s trade regime – and seek a compromise with Brussels to mitigate the economic damage caused by the dispute. .
The minister said, “Rishi will want to get a quick deal with the EU and move on.”
The minister also suggested Sunak would take a softer line with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine due to the former chancellor’s concerns about the economic impact of the war.
This claim was strongly denied by Sunak’s team, who said he had “led the way” in implementing sanctions against Moscow.
A Johnson ally says Sunak last year opposed Johnson’s proposals to unilaterally ease border checks on goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports from Britain by activating Article 16 of the protocol, which makes it possible to suspend some of its requirements.
“We would have activated Article 16 last year and [Lord David] Frost wouldn’t have quit if Number 10 had caught on,’ the ally added, referring to the former Brexit minister who quit last December.
“Rishi raised objections about the economic impact, which meant we just couldn’t do it.”
The government is pushing legislation through Parliament that would override key elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Sunak said he would persist with the bill.
Sunak’s allies said Johnson had also been nervous about using the “nuclear option” of activating Article 16 of the protocol last December and the cabinet agreed that was not not the right time to aggravate the quarrel with Brussels.
The European Commission has blocked the participation of British scientists in the EU’s €95 billion Horizon research program in retaliation and has previously warned that if the UK unilaterally rewrites Johnson’s Brexit deal, it risks to start a trade war with the bloc.
But the UK government has said the protocol undermines the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, and some businesses have complained of unnecessary bureaucracy.
Johnson’s allies have repeatedly attacked Sunak, calling him a ‘traitor’ and a ‘snake’ after he became one of the first cabinet ministers to quit this month in protest at the PM’s leadership .
“Boris blames Rishi for the fall from his premiership,” a Johnson supporter said. “That’s first-rate disloyalty.”
Sunak tried to defuse the feud with the incumbent prime minister by praising Johnson’s achievements, but he faced escalating attacks from rival teams of leadership candidates.
The former chancellor, who won the support of 101 Tory MPs in the final round of voting last week, is widely expected to hit the final list of two candidates to be presented to party members.
Sunak knows some party activists are wary of his tax hikes, alleged disloyalty to Johnson and Brexit, despite the fact that the former chancellor – unlike Truss – voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.
‘I firmly believe I have made the right decision in supporting furlough,’ Sunak wrote in the Sunday Telegraph, adding that the UK would be better off outside the EU with its ‘low growth and poor state of health’. bureaucratic spirit”.
He said that as Prime Minister he would set up a Brexit delivery service and that by the next general election he would have “removed or reformed all EU legislation, bureaucracy and bureaucracy that are still in our law book and slowing down economic growth”. .
But Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister and Johnson ally who last week branded Sunak a ‘socialist’ for his fiscal record, claimed the Treasury was not so keen on scrapping EU law as he was Chancellor.
Lucy Frazer, the Treasury’s financial secretary, said in a letter obtained by Bloomberg that it was not possible to simply tear up the retained EU legislation – or Reul – that had been an integral part of British tax policy for four decades. She added in the letter written last month that she continues “to have serious concerns about Reul’s complete end in tax”.
Rees-Mogg said: “Rishi’s position has changed quite quickly, but conversions to repeal EU law are always welcome.”
Sunak’s campaign spokesman said: “The former Chancellor and the Treasury were fully behind the goal of removing Reul, this was the best mechanism to do so.” The Treasury wanted bespoke legislation to remove Reul, in the form of future money bills.
Meanwhile, some Tory MPs believe former equality minister Kemi Badenoch, currently fourth in the leadership race after last week’s vote, will end up backing Sunak.
Badenoch clashed throughout the competition with Commerce Secretary Penny Mordaunt, who is currently runner-up, particularly over the issue of transgender rights.
Mordaunt was accused of supporting gender self-identification when she was minister responsible for policy. She denied this.
Some Tory MPs believe Badenoch is trying to stop Mordaunt from helping Sunak, as he would prefer to be on a final list of two with Truss, currently third in the leadership race. Badenoch denied this and said she was in the race “to earn it”.