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27 February 2023

Rishi Sunak has an opportunity to purge the Brexit ultras

The Prime Minister should threaten to remove the whip from those Tories who vote against a deal on Northern Ireland.

By Martin Fletcher

Remember the date: Monday, 27 February.

It is the day when Rishi Sunak struck a deal with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, to end the UK’s seemingly interminable dispute with Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement.

It is the day when post-Brexit Britain finally sought to start cooperating with the EU instead of picking silly, destructive fights with the giant trading bloc across the Channel; the day when a Conservative prime minister finally risked the support of the small rump of Brexiteer zealots within his own party, and the backwoodsmen of the tiny Democratic Unionist Party, who put ideological purity before the national interest for far too long; the day when, just possibly, the Tories finally began their long, long journey back towards the sensible, pragmatic centre of British politics and something vaguely approaching electability.

It is also the day when Sunak decided to confront Boris Johnson – that great malignant tumour who has come so close to destroying the once-great Conservative Party in his shameless, unprincipled pursuit of personal ambition.

[See also: Will the deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol make or break Rishi Sunak?]

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But I’m getting way ahead of myself, you’ll be saying. The ultras of the European Research Group and the DUP may well seek to block a deal which still treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK, and still leaves the European Court of Justice with a say – however indirect – in the province’s affairs. Johnson may incite a backbench insurrection against the man whom he and his supporters believe betrayed him. Sunak may fold.

I very much doubt it. The Prime Minister must know that there’s no going back. He must know that to do so would prove Keir Starmer’s contention that he is weak, and beholden to a tiny bunch of extremists. He must know by now that there’s no way the euro-fanatics on the right of his party will ever be satisfied, or that the fundamentalists of the DUP will suddenly embrace compromise, or that Johnson will ever accept his removal as party leader. He must know that, sooner or later, he has to confront and defeat these people; that he has to fight and win a civil war if he is to save his party.

Defeat them he can. The national mood is vastly different to the immediate post-Brexit years of 2016 to 2019 when the hapless Theresa May vainly sought to reach a compromise with the EU and was forced from office by the ERG and a slavering, right-wing Brexiteer press. Isolated and economically battered, Britain is chastened, humbler and more sober than it was. Most people now understand the enormous costs of leaving the EU, and have wearied of endless jingoistic confrontations with Brussels. They are ready to make peace and move on.

The ERG remains vocal, but it is far from the force it was – or appeared to be. It has alienated much of the rest of the parliamentary party with a theological extremism that has delivered precious little. A former chairman, Chris Heaton-Harris, is now Northern Ireland Secretary and will presumably support Sunak’s compromise. And how can it logically oppose a deal which so manifestly improves the protocol which it supported back in 2019 to help Johnson “get Brexit done”?

[See also: Can Rishi Sunak solve the Brexit Schleswig-Holstein question?]

The DUP is likewise a diminished force. From the very outset it has contrived to be on the wrong side of the argument. It supported Brexit in a province that backed Remain (by 56 per cent to 44 per cent). It was duped by Johnson, who promised he would never agree to a border in the Irish Sea then did just that. It opposes a protocol which is actually quite popular in Northern Ireland.

At last May’s elections the DUP was overtaken by Sinn Fein, winning just 25 of the Stormont Assembly’s 90 seats. That, and the fear of losing further support to Jim Allister’s even more uncompromising Traditional Unionist Voice, underpins its present refusal to set up a power-sharing devolved government. But there is no future in such obstructionism. It is fuelling the rise of the centrist Alliance Party. Indeed it is making the case for Irish reunification by showing that Stormont doesn’t work.

As for Johnson, author of the very protocol which he now denounces, it is a mystery to me why he continues to exert the deeply destructive and pernicious influence on his party that he does, or why he still believes he can return to No 10.

Certainly he won the 2019 general election with a “stonking” majority, but he was fighting the unelectable Jeremy Corbyn. Today he is an electoral liability, not an asset. After three years of sleaze and incompetence he was drummed out of office by his own party, with 59 of his ministers resigning. He had an approval rating of -48, and the Tories had just suffered three crushing by-election defeats. He struggled to get 100 Tory MPs to support his aborted bid to regain the leadership when Liz Truss resigned in October.

Johnson faces an uphill fight even to hold his own seat, Uxbridge and South Rusilip, at the next general election. Britain Predicts, the New Statesman’s forecasting service, calculates that he would win just 33.7 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 52.3 if it was held today. And that is before the privileges committee begins its televised hearings into whether he lied to parliament over partygate.

[See also: Keir Starmer plays divide and conquer with Northern Ireland deal]

Until now Sunak has pandered to his party’s hard right. He has backed the disgraceful Rwanda refugee scheme, the unworkable Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, and unconscionable legislation that protects British soldiers from prosecution for alleged Troubles-related crimes while denying the victims of terrorism any hope of justice. He has appointed the reactionary Lee Anderson a party vice-chairman. Little joy it has brought him.

But this is a moment of opportunity – not danger – for the Prime Minister. He has ended six years of hostility with Brussels and begun to regain its trust. Through patient negotiation he has won concessions from the EU that Johnson never did through threats and bluster. His deal with the EU represents a genuine, marketable achievement that should quickly yield measurable benefits – a state visit by President Biden in April, Britain’s readmission to Europe’s £80bn Horizon scientific research programme, greater French help to stop migrants crossing the Channel.

Just as Neil Kinnock once took on Militant Tendency, and Keir Starmer has defeated Corbynism, Sunak now has a golden chance to show real leadership and to stamp his authority on the party. He has a great opportunity to demonstrate a willingness to put the national interest before narrow partisan considerations, to turn the page on the ideological lunacies of the recent past, and to fulfil his promise to put the “people’s priorities” first.

If he needs Labour votes to get the deal through parliament so be it. Perhaps he should go one step further. Perhaps he should threaten to remove the whip from those Tories who vote against it – just as Johnson purged pro-European Tory rebels back in those dark, dark days of 2019.

Read more:

The Brexiteers are still living in a fantasy world

Why the battle for the Union is far from over

Keir Starmer has most to gain from resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol

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