After Boris Johnson concluded the EU Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland protocol on 17 October 2019, he brought it back to the House of Commons for approval. He not only wanted parliament to support his deal, he wanted it done quickly.
The ostensible justification for the hurry was to deliver on Johnson’s pledge that the UK would leave the EU by 31 October. The real reason was that the government and senior members of the European Research Group feared that the deal would lose support from some on the right because of the Northern Ireland protocol. The Democratic Unionist Party opposed the deal; their Tory allies in the ERG might do the same.
On the morning of one of the key votes I was approached by one of the leaders of the ERG and asked for a meeting. He reluctantly supported the deal for fear of losing Brexit altogether, but he was worried that those of us who had blocked a no-deal Brexit would delay matters. “If we don’t get this done quickly, some of our lot will peel off,” he told me. “If you lot drag this out, this agreement could be lost and you’ll end up without a deal.”
As it happens, the 31 October deadline was not met but nor was there detailed scrutiny of the deal. As set out in a forthcoming book by Meg Russell and Lisa James, The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit, discipline among the ERG held partly because Johnson led them to believe he would subsequently find a way of abandoning the protocol.
Brexit has not been without its ironies. Those that had considered parliamentary sovereignty to be sacrosanct were desperate to prevent parliament from scrutinising Johnson’s deal. Those who considered themselves staunch defenders of the Union and took their lead from the DUP in objecting to Theresa May’s deal were ultimately willing to ignore unionist objections to a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. And, shortly afterwards, these self-styled “defenders of democracy” signed up to an election campaign that was all about implementing an “oven-ready” deal that they wanted to scrap.
With the general election behind them, the deal is now condemned. The blame, of course, is attributed to those who stopped no deal and took away the government’s “negotiating capital”.
It is, of course, nonsense. The Brexiteers still cannot come to terms with the Northern Ireland-Brexit trilemma – you cannot have all three of regulatory and customs divergence; no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is the latter that the DUP would sacrifice but this is not an option that the EU (or, for that matter, the US) could accept.
If only the UK could threaten a no-deal Brexit, the EU would somehow find a way to make it work, the Brexiteers claim. But a no-deal Brexit would always be disproportionately detrimental to the UK, not the EU. It was this that made the threat ineffective.
We know this because, a year later, we were in the midst of negotiations on future UK-EU relations. Johnson had a comfortable majority with no troublesome backbenchers. The government threatened to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol with the Internal Market Bill (breaching international law). What happened? The protocol survived and checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland remained in place.
Some months later the UK government tried again to force the EU to change its approach, introducing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which, again, threatened to rip up the protocol unilaterally and breach international law. Again, the EU did not change its approach.
It is only now – with Johnson gone and the Protocol Bill paused – that progress has been made on checks, VAT and consultation. Rishi Sunak, in contrast to Johnson, has the advantage of being seen by the EU as someone who can be trusted to act in good faith.
But can he be trusted to deliver? Sunak is now in negotiation not with the EU but his own MPs and the DUP. The DUP rarely demonstrates much by way of flexibility; its voters are turning to the Traditional Unionist Voice; and it has no enthusiasm for returning to the power-sharing devolved government when the first minister would be from Sinn Fein, which won the last election. Those Tory MPs who revel in their Brexit purity want to see Sunak fail or feel guilty about abandoning the DUP in 2019 and are in no mood for compromise.
The temptation for Sunak may be to fold, kick the issue into the long grass and avoid giving Johnson an issue to exploit. But his authority would be greatly weakened internationally and domestically. At the very least there would be no much-needed reset in the EU relationship and European leaders would no longer be willing to invest political capital in him. Labour would be entitled to portray him as weak, a captive of his own hardliners, in office and not in power. And the ERG would come back for more – demanding that the egregious Northern Ireland Protocol Bill be progressed.
Comparisons will inevitably be made with Theresa May but there is an important difference. May needed the ERG votes; Sunak has a choice. He can get his deal through parliament without them. It would be uncomfortable and his critics would be out for revenge but he would have achieved something worthwhile. That, after all, is the point of being Prime Minister. He should stand firm.