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20 February 2023

Rishi Sunak must face down the Tory Militant Tendency

The Conservative MPs determined to thwart solutions to the Irish border problem are the same ones who created it.

By Martin Fletcher

“Sunak ready to defy DUP over Brexit,” the Times proclaims. “Sunak pauses Protocol deal over backlash from Tories and DUP,” the Daily Telegraph counters. 

Confused? Well you might be, though I suspect the Telegraph is closer to the truth. But the most confusing fact of all, and the most sickening and exasperating, is that those threatening to wreck Rishi Sunak’s laudable efforts to end our deeply damaging row with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol are the very same people that landed us in this awful mess in the first place.

No matter that battered, economically beleaguered Britain desperately needs Sunak’s compromise deal. It would, in a stroke, greatly improve our relations with the EU, end tensions with the Joe Biden administration, and forestall the danger of a trade war with the vast economic bloc of 27 states across the English Channel.  

For their own selfish or extreme ideological ends, and without any apparent embarrassment, Boris Johnson, David Frost, the Tory zealots of the European Research Group (ERG) and the implacable hardliners of the Democratic Unionist Party are still effectively demanding that Sunak scrap the very same protocol which – with the exception of the DUP – they negotiated, approved and enthusiastically hailed scarcely three years ago.

These are the people who, during the 2016 referendum, blithely ignored the warnings of Tony Blair and John Major that Brexit would threaten Northern Ireland’s peace process by recreating a hard border on the island of Ireland. Indeed the prospect of restoring the border may have been why the DUP supported it.

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These are the people who demanded and secured the hardest of hard Brexits, and proceeded to scupper the “Irish backstop” – Theresa May’s proposed solution to the inescapable fact that Brexit required a border between the UK and EU somewhere. Three times they voted down her “Chequers deal” which would have kept the whole of the UK in the EU’s customs union until a solution could be found. She was finally forced to resign as prime minister in July 2019, and was replaced by Johnson, who had cynically resigned as foreign secretary over the deal in order to improve his chances of succeeding her.

Johnson’s understanding of the complexities of Northern Ireland was limited to say the least. He had seldom visited the province. In February 2018 he had – shockingly – likened the deeply emotive, century-old scar that divides Northern Ireland from the Republic to London’s congestion zone.  

Before becoming prime minister he had repeatedly, solemnly and explicitly promised the DUP that there would be a border in the Irish Sea “over my dead body”, and that “no British government could, or should, sign up” to a Brexit deal that rendered Northern Ireland “an economic semi-colony of the EU”.

Months after reaching No 10 he treacherously agreed to exactly that. In October 2019 he signed up to the embryonic Northern Ireland protocol which created a de facto border in the Irish Sea. Weeks later he called a general election, and won a “stonking” majority with a promise to deliver Brexit with his “brilliant” and “oven-ready” deal. Remember him smashing through that wall marked “gridlock” with a JCB digger proclaiming “get Brexit done”?

Thereafter, Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, swiftly concluded the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, of which the protocol was a key part. He and Johnson hailed it, and parliament ratified it, but the costs soon became clear. Exports from Britain to Northern Ireland faced onerous barriers. Furious Unionists complained that the province had been cast into a constitutional limbo, no longer fully a part of the UK and subjected to EU regulations over which it had no say.

Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief strategist, later disclosed that Johnson “never had a Scooby-Doo what the deal he signed meant”, adding that he had always intended to get Johnson to “ditch the bits we didn’t like”. He explained: “Cheating foreigners is a core part of the job.”

Sure enough, the perfidious Johnson, Frost and others were soon renouncing their own deal. They demanded that the EU renegotiate the protocol, claiming preposterously that they had signed it under duress. The government threatened to break international law in a “specific and limited way” by removing certain trade barriers between Britain and the UK. Early last summer Liz Truss, then the foreign secretary, introduced legislation to unilaterally tear up large parts of the protocol, further enraging the EU and destroying Britain’s reputation as a trustworthy, law-abiding nation.

By then the DUP had refused to form a power-sharing Stormont government until the protocol was junked in its entirety. Again, it likely had an ulterior motive. It had just been beaten by Sinn Féin in last May’s elections, and faced the unpalatable prospect of serving under a republican first minister.

[See also: Can Britain ever rejoin the EU?]

This was the ghastly mess that Sunak inherited when he became prime minister in October. He now appears to have negotiated a reasonable compromise with the EU, but those fanatical Brexiteers responsible for our sorry predicament are still threatening to oppose it. They complain that the European Court of Justice would remain the ultimate arbiter of trade disputes. They insist that Sunak should reserve the right unilaterally to ditch the protocol to maximise his bargaining power. But they fail to say what they would put in its place – because they can’t.

It is high time Sunak defied this bunch of wreckers and extremists. The DUP does not speak for Northern Ireland. The province voted heavily for Remain in the 2016 referendum. Polls show a majority of its people support the protocol. Of the 90 MLAs elected to the Stormont assembly last May, 52 broadly backed it, with only 37 Unionists opposed. 

The ERG’s membership is what? Perhaps 50 of the Conservative parliamentary party’s 355 MPs. It is certainly fewer than 100, though they are vocal. The likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith and the ludicrous Mark Francois have had their chance to lead the party on Brexit and fluffed it. Sunak could easily push his deal through parliament without their support, though he would depend on Labour votes to do so.

Johnson and his laughable side kick, Frost, have likewise forfeited their right to be heard on this issue. Their position is absurd. They are attacking their own deal. As the former chancellor George Osborne noted yesterday (19 February) on The Andrew Neil Show, waiting for Johnson to do “the sensible, grown-up thing” is futile. “He’s not going to do it if he thinks there’s a political opportunity in causing trouble. He wants to bring down Rishi Sunak and he will use any instrument to do it.”

Sunak should proceed with his compromise because it is manifestly in the national interest to end our protracted dispute with Brussels, and an essential precondition for the UK’s economic recovery. 

But he should also do so because it is in his own political interest. He cannot hope to hold on to the Brexit-backing Red Wall constituencies at the next general election. His only hope of victory, or of preventing an absolute rout, is to win back those millions of decent, centrist voters who were disgusted by Johnson’s venal government, and Truss’s deranged one, but still don’t entirely trust Keir Starmer’s Labour. 

To do that he needs to come off the proverbial fence. He needs finally to assert himself. He must call the DUP’s bluff, take on Johnson, and marginalise the Militant Tendency of the Tory party that is the ERG.

Read more:

The end of the Brexit taboo

Is the EU plan to counter US green subsidies “Marx on steroids”?

Why size does matter for Europe and Brexit Britain

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