Rishi Sunak was too focused on keeping the EU happy over the Northern Ireland Protocol


Brandon Lewis believes Liz Truss is the best person to continue the process of overriding the protocol – Eddie Mulholland

A former cabinet minister has broken cover to accuse Rishi Sunak of blocking attempts to break the Brexit impasse with the EU.

Brandon Lewis, the ex-Northern Ireland secretary, claimed that the Treasury under Mr Sunak put up “huge resistance” to efforts to override the Northern Ireland Protocol and was more focused on trying to “keep the EU happy”.

Mr Lewis made the comments as he endorsed Liz Truss for the Conservative leadership, claiming she was “much more likely” than Mr Sunak to achieve a swift return to power sharing in Northern Ireland if she becomes prime minister.

Mr Lewis served as Northern Ireland secretary from February 2020 until earlier this month, when he turned down Cabinet promotions to join the exodus of ministers resigning from Boris Johnson’s government.

In the role, he helped develop the Northern Ireland Protocol Billwhich aims to remove controversial trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland by scrapping elements of the Brexit deal struck with the EU.

Speaking exclusively to The Telegraph, he claimed that while Mr Sunak declared his support for the bill during a hustings in Leeds on Thursday, this did not tally with the ex-chancellor’s record in government.

“It’s good to see him coming around to see that that is the way forward, because that doesn’t quite reflect the experience I’ve had of the Treasury in the last year and a half,” he said.

Mr Lewis claimed that work on the legislation in 2021 had encountered “huge resistance from the Treasury”, with the department more focused on the EU’s likely response than the difficulties of Northern Irish citizens or concerns about the UK’s territorial integrity.

“The Treasury in my experience seems to want to try and keep the EU happy, when I’ve always felt our focus should be on working to deliver for the people of the United Kingdom and do what’s right by them as their sovereign government,” he said.

“The concern has always been around, for the Treasury, ‘what will be the EU’s reaction’, rather than ‘how do we get this to work, and how do we fix this problem that is a problem for the UK?'”

Mr Lewis says the Government's focus should be on working to deliver for the people, not on keeping the EU happy - Eddie Mulholland

Mr Lewis says the Government’s focus should be on working to deliver for the people, not on keeping the EU happy – Eddie Mulholland

Mr Sunak’s team insisted this week that the former chancellor had been a “believer in Brexit from the beginning” who would continue with the bill “until and unless the EU says it is willing to come to the table” to renegotiate the protocol.

However, Mr Lewis said that the protocol meant that ministers “weren’t able to get even a Northern Ireland free port off the ground”, despite Mr Sunak being a long-standing champion of the tax-free zones.

‘Liz Truss understands the union’

Although he initially backed Nadhim Zahawi in the leadership race, Mr Lewis said that it had been an “easy choice” to endorse Liz Truss, partly because of his experience working with the Foreign Secretary on Northern Ireland.

“What I’ve seen consistently with Liz is somebody who understands the union, has been strong and resolute on defending and protecting the union,” he said.

Working on the bill, he said that there were times when he and the Foreign Secretary were “battling against” the government “machine”, but “Liz was determined to see that through”.

The Foreign Secretary’s championing of the bill meant that if she became prime minister, the EU would “know where they stand”, he claimed.

“I think that is important, because we’ve seen consistently over the Brexit process, the EU has only really shown flexibility in moving when they’re forced to.”

Playing down the risks of a hardline stance sparking a trade warMr Lewis said that the UK and EU had bigger economic challenges to deal with.

“While we’re dealing with issues like Ukrainethe EU’s concerns about a Norfolk sausage being sold in Belfast doesn’t seem to be quite in the realms of something they should be overly concerned about.

“The Norfolk sausages are sound, they are good! Both Liz and I, as Norfolk MPs, can attest to that.”

Despite the row over the protocol, he said Ms Truss had been able to keep working productively with the EU on areas of “mutual interest”, including Ukraine.

‘The DUP knows Liz’

And Mr Lewis said that Mr Truss would be better placed to bring the Democratic Unionist Party back into power sharing if she becomes prime minister.

“[The DUP] know Liz, they trust Liz, because she brought the bill forward… I think that will give a lot more confidence to them,” he said.

“Ultimately, I think Liz as prime minister is much more likely to lead to a return to power sharing in Stormont more quickly.”

On Saturday night, Ms Truss also received the backing of Martin Howe, the Brexiteer QC.

In a blog for Lawyers for Britain, Mr Howe said he believed the Treasury had “nearly succeeded in gutting” the protocol bill.

“I fear that the reality of a Sunak premiership would be to trade away the bill in return for a quick face-saving deal with the EU which would leave most of the protocol and its problems in place,” he said.

During the interview, Mr Lewis hit out at Treasury “orthodoxy”, including its alleged skepticism of the Laffer Curve – the idea that cutting taxes can increase revenue.

“The Treasury has had an orthodoxy and an inbuilt sort of methodology around how it sees economic growth,” he said. “One of the areas where I think Liz has some really good ideas… is in supply side reforms.”

Like Ms Truss, Mr Lewis backed Remain in the EU referendum before becoming a Brexit convert.

Truss stayed but Lewis left

However, the pair took contrasting approaches when it came to remaining in the Cabinet as Mr Johnson’s government collapsed.

While Ms Truss has emphasized her loyalty to the Prime MinisterMr Lewis penned a resignation letter saying he had no choice but to leave because the Government was no longer upholding “honest, integrity and mutual respect” in the wake of partygate and the allegations of sexual harassment against Chris Pincher.

Explaining his choice, he told The Telegraph: “Everybody has to make their own decisions, and everybody is in a different situation.

“The reason I resigned was I flew back from Belfast on a Wednesday evening, spent a fair few hours in Number 10… and had a very long conversation with the Prime Minister.”

After rebuffing offers of promotion from Mr Johnson, “it just wasn’t tenable for me… to then continue”.

“It is the most difficult decision I’ve made in politics.”



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