Boris Johnson’s allies step up their attacks on Rishi Sunak

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak has been accused by Boris Johnson’s allies of planning to take a soft line with Brussels in the row over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements if he becomes prime minister.

Sunak, who currently has the most support among MPs in the Conservative leadership contest, on Sunday sought to reassure Eurosceptic Tories that he would take a tough stance on Brexit and “capitalise on the freedoms” it offered.

But Johnson’s supporters are determined to stop Sunak, whom they said betrayed the prime minister, and are now mounting a sustained briefing campaign against him.

Many are backing 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.

One minister close to Johnson claimed Sunak would change policy on the Northern Ireland protocol — a key part of the prime minister’s Brexit deal with the EU that outlines the region’s trading regime — and seek a compromise with Brussels to alleviate the economic damage the row is causing .

The minister said: “Rishi will want to cut 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 because of the former chancellor’s concerns about the economic impact of the war.

This claim has been strongly denied by Sunak’s team, who said he “led the way” in implementing sanctions against Moscow.

One Johnson ally said Sunak last year opposed proposals by Johnson to unilaterally ease border checks on goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports from mainland Britain by activating article 16 of the protocol, which allows some of its requirements to be suspended.

“We would have activated article 16 last year and [Lord David] Frost would not have resigned had Number 10 had its way,” added the ally, referring to the former Brexit minister who quit last December.

“Rishi raised objections about the economic impact, which meant we simply couldn’t do it.”

The government is now pushing legislation through parliament that would override key parts of the Northern Ireland protocol. Sunak has 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 it was the wrong time to escalate the row with Brussels.

The European Commission has blocked the participation of British scientists in the EU’s €95bn Horizon research program in retaliation and has previously warned that if the UK unilaterally rewrites Johnson’s Brexit deal it risks igniting a trade war with the bloc.

But the UK government has said the protocol is undermining the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, and some businesses have complained about unnecessary bureaucracy.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak: Johnson’s supporters are determined to stop Sunak taking the top job © Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street

Johnson allies have repeatedly attacked Sunak, variously labeling him “treacherous” and a “snake” after he became one of the first members of the government to quit this month in protest over the prime minister’s leadership.

“Boris blames Rishi for the fall of his premiership,” said one Johnson supporter. “It’s disloyalty of the highest order.”

Sunak has tried to defuse the row with the outgoing prime minister by praising Johnson’s achievements, but he has encountered escalating attacks from rival leadership contenders’ teams.

The former chancellor, who secured the support of 101 Tory MPs in the most recent round of voting last week, is widely expected to reach the final shortlist of two that will be presented to the party’s members.

Sunak knows some party activists are suspicious of his tax increases, his supposed disloyalty to Johnson, and Brexit, despite the fact that the former chancellor — unlike Truss — voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.

“I strongly believe I made the right decision in backing Leave,” Sunak wrote in the Sunday Telegraph, adding that the UK would be better off outside the EU with its “low growth, bureaucratic mindset”.

He said that as prime minister he would set up a Brexit delivery department and that by the next general election he would have “scrapped or reformed all of the EU law, red tape and bureaucracy that is still on our statute book and slowing economic growth” .

But Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister and Johnson ally who last week labeled Sunak “a socialist” over his tax-raising record, claimed the Treasury was not so keen on scrapping EU law while he was chancellor.

Lucy Frazer, financial secretary to the Treasury, said in a letter obtained by Bloomberg that it was not feasible to simply rip up retained EU law — or Reul — that had been integral to British tax policy for four decades. She added in the letter written last month that she continued “to have significant concerns over fully ending Reul in tax”.

Rees-Mogg said: “Rishi’s position has changed quite quickly but converts to the repeal of EU law are always welcome.”

Sunak’s campaign spokesperson said: “The former chancellor and Treasury were fully behind the goal of removing Reul, it was a question of the best mechanism to do so.” The Treasury wanted bespoke legislation to remove Reul, in the form of future finance bills.

Meanwhile some Tory MPs believe former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, currently fourth in the leadership contest after last week’s voting, will end up backing Sunak.

Badenoch has clashed throughout the contest with trade minister Penny Mordaunt, currently second, notably on the issue of transgender people’s rights.

Mordaunt has been accused of backing gender self-identification while she was the minister responsible for the policy. She has denied this.

Some Tory MPs believe Badenoch is trying to stop Mordaunt from helping Sunak, because he would prefer to be on a final shortlist of two with Truss, currently third in the leadership contest. Badenoch has denied this and said she is in the race “to win it”.

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