The Irish border was repeatedly neglected during the Brexit referendum campaign but it has done more than any other issue to shape its aftermath. Faced with the reality that economic divergence between the UK and the EU necessitated the creation of a new border – either on the island of Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – Leavers resorted to denial and deception.
Boris Johnson, as so often, led the way, insisting on 8 December 2019 that “there will be no checks on goods going from GB to NI, or NI to GB” and declaring on 13 August 2020 that “there will be no border down the Irish Sea – over my dead body”. But Mr Johnson duly lived to see the creation of such a border under the Northern Ireland protocol.
Faced with the consequences of their own actions, Mr Johnson and his allies – such as the preposterous Lord Frost – disowned their deal and championed a new bill that would allow the UK to unilaterally override the protocol. This threatened breach of international law raised the spectre of a trade war with the EU.
[See also: Rishi Sunak has proved himself – but trouble still lies ahead]
Until recently, it was unclear whether Rishi Sunak would be prepared to defy the Conservative Party’s recalcitrant right. In times of unpopularity, the temptation is for leaders to seek refuge in ideological purity.
But the Prime Minister, to his credit, has shown greater ambition and bravery. The Windsor framework, which he agreed with the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on 27 February, represents unambiguous progress. The new “green lane” for goods from Britain destined for Northern Ireland (as opposed to the EU single market) will allow most checks and paperwork to be scrapped. And the “Stormont brake” will allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to veto new EU rules that it believes will have a detrimental and lasting effect on the province. This mechanism, crucially, could clear the way for power-sharing – suspended in Northern Ireland since February 2022 – to resume.
As well as political cunning, Mr Sunak has shown a willingness to compromise. He accepted that the European Court of Justice would remain the ultimate arbiter in trade disputes and agreed to withdraw the egregious Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Perhaps most importantly, he has paved the way for a wider rapprochement between the UK and the EU, including associate membership of Horizon, the EU’s €96bn science programme. Mr Sunak has shown that the bluster and bombast of Mr Johnson is not the way to get results: patient diplomacy is.
But the narrative that this moment represents a turning point for Mr Sunak’s premiership should be resisted. The Irish imbroglio was an unnecessary distraction created by Brexit, a cause the Prime Minister supported. Its resolution does little to address the UK’s fundamental problems.
The contention of Keir Starmer is that he would do more. In his essay on page 22, the Labour leader outlines his “mission-based” approach to government – an approach influenced by the economists Mariana Mazzucato and Andy Haldane – which includes long-term targets for economic growth, the environment, the NHS, education and crime. He derides “sticking-plaster politics” as “the enemy of progress; problems fester and Britain keeps missing vital opportunities to shape a better future”.
Mr Starmer is right to denounce the short-termism of British politics, a malady that has grown worse since the 2016 Brexit referendum. The same woes have persisted across multiple administrations and decades: an unproductive and unbalanced economy; public services too focused on cure rather than prevention; an over-centralised political system and an outmoded constitution.
The consequences are clear: the UK is the only G7 economy that has yet to return to its pre-pandemic size, Britons suffer the worst access to healthcare in Europe and there is a profound lack of trust in Westminster as successive populist revolts have shown.
Can Mr Starmer succeed where others have failed? Far more detail is required – as he concedes – and difficult trade-offs will have to be confronted. Can he, for instance, make the UK the fastest-growing economy in the G7 without spending significantly more or rejoining the single market? After nearly a decade of distraction, now is precisely the time for Britain to have such debates.
[See also: What does Rishi Sunak gain from the Northern Ireland deal?]
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission