UK PM Sunak's new Brexit deal faces parliamentary test next week
By Andrew MacAskill
LONDON (Reuters) -British lawmakers will vote next week on whether to back the central element of the government's recent deal with the European Union to reform post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland in the first parliamentary test for the agreement.
The House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt said on Thursday that there would be a debate on March 22 on a motion to approve the measures needed to implement the so-called "Stormont brake".
The brake enables Britain to stop new EU laws from applying to goods in Northern Ireland if so requested by a third of lawmakers in the province's devolved legislature.
The deal, announced last month, seeks to resolve tensions caused by the Northern Ireland protocol - a complex agreement that set the trading rules for the British-ruled region that London agreed before it left the EU but now says are unworkable.
Like the protocol, the new deal aims to avoid the need for customs checks at the border with EU member Ireland.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Thursday there would be no overall vote on the new deal. He said while there could be other votes on parts of the deal, next week's would be the main one because the government considered it to be the "most significant" part of the agreement.
"We said parliament would have its say on the framework," the spokesman said. "This vote honours the prime minister's commitment to provide MPs with the opportunity to vote on the new arrangements."
The wording of what members of parliament will vote for next week will be published on Monday.
The head of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) this week voiced his strongest concerns to date over the UK-EU deal, saying his party was seeking changes from the British government.
A key test of the deal is its ability to convince the DUP to end a year-long boycott of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government over the original post-Brexit trade rules.
The debate next week is expected to be followed by a vote on measures to implement the brake. The opposition Labour Party has said it supports the deal overall, so those measures are likely to pass comfortably.
However, the debate will provide the first tangible test of sentiment among the DUP and also within Sunak's own Conservative Party, some of whom have expressed scepticism and are yet to say whether they would back it.
Conservative lawmakers who are part of the pro-Brexit European Research Group have asked for an analysis of the agreement by a so-called "star chamber" of legal experts.
The head of the European Research Group, Mark Francois, said on Thursday that the analysis will be completed before the vote.
"Members of the group will no doubt pay close attention to the star chamber's conclusions, prior to any vote," he said.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who negotiated the protocol, said earlier this month that he would struggle to vote for the new deal, insisting it still allows the EU too much influence in the United Kingdom.
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; editing by William James, Bernadette Baum and Alex Richardson)