“The war is over,” Nigel Farage proclaimed on Thursday morning as the finishing touches were being put to Boris Johnson’s long-awaited Brexit trade deal. “Now we’re out, arguably with a new treaty that is a bit closer to a partnership agreement, it’s not perfect but goodness me it’s still progress.”
The apparent peace declaration from the veteran Eurosceptic campaigner was met with relief in Downing Street, which feared that the ruling Conservative party’s longtime nemesis would be the main obstacle in selling the deal’s compromises on fishing rights, fair competition and retaliatory mechanisms.
The conclusion by the leader of the Brexit party that the prime minister had “done what he said he’d do” in negotiating a loose free trade deal should pave the way for its acceptance by the majority of the Eurosceptic caucus of Tory MPs and voters who backed the party at the last election, based on Mr Johnson’s pledge to deliver on the 2016 EU referendum result.
Downing Street has been preparing the ground for weeks with the European Research Group of Brexiter MPs, ensuring that senior backbenchers were aware of how the deal was taking shape. Oliver Lewis, Mr Johnson’s Europe adviser, has had a key role informing the ERG’s high command of the shifting British position and accompanying EU concessions with leaks kept to a minimum.
“We have confidence in the prime minister and we have great confidence in Frost,” said one senior Tory Eurosceptic, referring to the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost. “We have been prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Senior members of the group had already welcomed Mr Johnson’s deal as the “Christmas Eve Agreement”, a reference to the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement that secured peace in Northern Ireland.
Indications from senior figures within the ERG suggest that many of its members will accept the compromises negotiated by Mr Johnson and Lord Frost.
While some ERG members are unhappy about the concessions on fisheries, they have already broadly accepted the outline deal on the “level playing field” designed to ensure fair competition between the UK and EU, which was the most ideologically tricky part of the agreement.
The caucus will argue that the final agreement is a long way from the “classic dynamic alignment” originally sought by the EU, which would have tied the UK to Brussels’ rules, enforced by the European Court of Justice.
However, the ERG is reserving ultimate judgment until after it has seen the fine print and — in particular — until its legal experts have pored over a text rumoured to take up 2,000 pages.
Its so-called “star chamber” of legal experts — led by Martin Howe, Barney Reynolds and veteran Tory MP Bill Cash — are on standby to spend Christmas picking through the details before delivering their verdict to the group ahead of the parliamentary vote.
“Given that the new agreement is also highly complex, the star chamber will scrutinise it in detail, to ensure that its provisions genuinely protect the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, after we exit the transition period at the end of this year,” the ERG said in a statement.
MPs have been told to expect a potential vote on the deal on December 30, a timetable that is deemed acceptable by the ERG, provided the group can have at least several days to go through the details.
Downing Street is not expecting a significant rebellion. With the Labour party likely to support a deal, any pushback from Tory Eurosceptics would have little effect. One Whitehall official forecast “at most 20” MPs would be unhappy with the deal and could vote against it, while some in the Tory whips’ office were confident the number was “much less”.
Mr Johnson is preparing to use subtle threats to convince MPs. Those considering rebelling will be reminded there are upcoming boundary changes that will lead to a scrabble for seats at the next general election. “If they want help from the party to stay in parliament, then they’ll back the deal,” one well-placed MP said.
“Everyone just wants Brexit done. No one in my patch has the energy to start arguing about it again,” said one newly elected Tory MP.
One minister echoed this sentiment. “Who out there in the country has any appetite to think about Brexit now?”