What sort of prime minister is Rishi Sunak? A mainstream pragmatist or right-wing ideologue? A conciliator or confrontationalist? Strong or weak?
Twelve weeks into his tenure it is still hard to say, but there is an issue looming that will go a long way towards helping us answer those questions. It is an issue on which Sunak must either kowtow to the right-wing zealots who hijacked the Conservative Party back in 2016, or have the guts to defy them. I refer to the Northern Ireland protocol.
To recap: Brexit meant there had to be a border between the UK and EU either on the island of Ireland, which would have endangered the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, or in the Irish Sea. In 2019, in order to “get Brexit done” before that December’s election, Boris Johnson chose the latter despite repeatedly promising he wouldn’t. He then renounced the protocol that he had negotiated, hailed and had approved by parliament, thereby triggering a bitter and protracted dispute with Brussels. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has since boycotted Stormont’s power-sharing executive, demanding that the protocol be junked.
Sunak is eager to resolve that dispute, and with good reason. He wants to avert a deeply damaging trade war with the giant economic and political bloc across the English Channel. He wants to work more closely with Europe in the war against Russia. He wants to remove a serious irritant in Britain’s relations with an Irish-American US president, Joe Biden – an irritant that could scupper a state visit on the Good Friday Agreement’s 25th anniversary in April. He wants Britain to be seen upholding, not breaching, international law, and he genuinely wants to “get Brexit done”’ (Johnson only pretended to have done so).
The mood music in recent weeks has been unusually upbeat. On 3 January Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach, admitted that the protocol was “perhaps a bit too strict” and that there was “room for flexibility”. On 9 January James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, and Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s chief negotiator, reached an agreement on a new system for sharing customs data. Britain has quietly permitted the construction of de facto border posts to monitor goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, and has suspended Liz Truss’s threat to unilaterally jettison part of the protocol if there is no deal.
With Sunak now taking a close personal interest in the talks, Cleverly and Šefčovič were meeting today (16 January) to decide whether to enter the so-called tunnel – the final stage of intense, secret negotiations designed to nail down a final agreement.
Such an agreement is eminently achievable if the political will is there, but here’s the rub. It will involve compromise – a concept seldom seen in British politics in recent years. The EU will have to agree to less onerous border checks. In return, Sunak will have to accept that there must be some border checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as some sort of arbitration role, direct or indirect, for that bête noire of British eurosceptics, the European Court of Justice.
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The ultras of the European Research Group (ERG) are already warning against any deal that would erode the UK’s sovereignty and leave Northern Ireland subject to both British and EU laws. “The ERG would certainly want to see the constitutional integrity of the UK restored, which is not the case at the moment,” David Jones, the ERG’s deputy chair, told the Daily Telegraph over the weekend. “We do not like what we are hearing about the direction of travel. The Prime Minister should not sign a deal which leaves part of the UK under EU legal jurisdiction,” another senior member of the ERG told the Sunday Times.
The DUP is also girding for a fight. Nigel Dodds, the party’s leader in the Lords, said the talks were still about implementing, not renegotiating, the protocol, and accused the government of “softening people up for a cave-in”.
All of which means that Sunak will face a momentous choice. He has the votes to ram a deal through parliament because Keir Starmer has pledged his support. “Whatever political cover you need, whatever mechanisms in Westminster you require, if it delivers for our national interest and the people of Northern Ireland we will support you,” the Labour leader promised in a statesmanlike speech in Belfast on 13 January.
But alienating the 50-plus members of the ERG would be a huge risk for a prime minister whose support within the parliamentary party is so fragile, and when Johnson’s supporters are already agitating so openly for his return to No 10. A prime ministerial compromise on Brexit would give them the perfect casus belli.
Will Sunak have the courage to do the right thing? Will he dare to put the national interest before his own and extricate the UK from the mess that Johnson himself created? Will he finally stand up to a bunch of ERG fanatics that Starmer very accurately described as a “Brexit purity cult that can never be satisfied” – a group that has held sway over its party for far too long, and has already caused untold damage to this country?
And will he, for that matter, call the bluff of the equally intransigent DUP, which finds itself on the wrong side of the argument in a province that voted heavily for Remain, and whose economic interests the protocol actually serves quite well.
We shall soon see, and Sunak’s premiership may well be defined by the choice he makes.
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