Prime minister must defy ‘Brexit purity cult’ to secure NI deal, says Starmer

Keir Starmer is set to challenge Rishi Sunak to stand up to the ‘Brexit purity cult’ in the Conservative party in order to bring about resolution to the Northern Protocol impasse. 

In a speech to Queen’s University Belfast on Friday, the Labour leader will encourage the prime minister to defy MPs in the European Research Group (ERG), the home of Eurosceptic Conservatives. 

Starmer will offer his support to the prime minister, saying he will provide “political cover” at Westminster if Sunak can secure an agreement with the EU that is in the national interest.

“The time for action on the protocol is now. The time to stand up to the ERG is now,” Starmer will say on Friday. “The time to put Northern Ireland above a Brexit purity cult, which can never be satisfied, is now”.

He will say that there is a “small window of opportunity” to resolve the protocol issue before the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement in April

The Northern Ireland Protocol was negotiated by then-prime minister Boris Johnson to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) staunchly opposes the new trading arrangements, arguing it creates a border between Northern Ireland and Britain.

“We’ve got to use the anniversary to fix minds, get the country and its political process moving forward again – deliver for the people of Northern Ireland”, Starmer will add.

He will call on the prime minister to recognise the mistakes made by Conservative governments “That has damaged the political process here in Northern Ireland – no question. And it’s certainly not the spirit of 1998”.

Sir Keir will also use the speech to hail the Good Friday Agreement as “the greatest achievement of the Labour Party in my lifetime, without question … But of course, the real achievements – the real pride – belongs to the people and communities here in Northern Ireland”.

The Labour leader spoke to party leaders in Northern Ireland on Thursday.

Starmer’s speech follows an address by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who criticised the government’s “denial and avoidance” of the “immense damage” Brexit was doing to the country.

In a speech at the London Mansion House government dinner on Thursday, Khan called for a shift away from the “unnecessarily hardline version” of Brexit and towards greater alignment with Europe.

The London mayor said: “I simply can’t keep quiet about the immense damage Brexit is doing. Ministers seem to have developed selective amnesia when it comes to one of the root causes of our problems.

“Brexit can’t be airbrushed out of history or the consequences wished away”.