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21 February 2023

Keir Starmer plays divide and conquer with Northern Ireland deal

Labour wants a closer relationship with the EU, so it makes sense to get that now while casting Brexiteers as saboteurs.

By Freddie Hayward

Sealing a deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol would be Rishi Sunak’s first major achievement as Prime Minister. It would help to relieve some of the aimlessness surrounding the government, but its success depends on securing a commitment from the Democratic Unionist Party that it will return to power-sharing in the Northern Ireland executive if a deal is reached. (The DUP withdrew from the devolved government over the protocol in February 2022, causing it to collapse.)

Even if that feat is achieved, Sunak is facing a rebellion from the Brexiteer backbenchers in the European Research Group (ERG), galvanised by an opportunistic Boris Johnson. The MPs have said they will take their cue from the DUP, but they are opposed in principle to the protocol. One ERG source I spoke to recently was so shocked at reports an agreement was close that they assumed the EU had decided to change the protocol fundamentally – otherwise why would the government even be entertaining such a deal?

The warning from Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, to Sunak to press ahead with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – which overrides the protocol – is particularly worrying for No 10 because of her support among the right of the party. As Steve Baker, now a Northern Ireland minister, put it during last summer’s Conservative leadership contest, “Suella Braverman has my complete loyalty, she decides who I support”.

The deeper these divisions the greater the benefit for Labour – and that’s the strategy. Last month Labour wisely offered Sunak the votes to get the deal through parliament, should a vote be necessary. It’s straight out of Keir Starmer’s playbook: remove Labour from the fray, shift the focus onto the Conservatives, deny Sunak sole ownership of a political victory and stoke division within the governing party. The same ploy was made in offering votes to face down a Conservative rebellion over housing targets. Starmer crowns the ERG His Majesty’s Opposition and watches them fight the government.

There’s also a practical benefit. Labour wants a closer relationship with the EU, on everything from security to co-operation on scientific research. Starmer has bookmarked the scheduled review of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement between the EU and UK in 2025 as an opportunity to improve the deal. The normalisation of relations before the next general election would help any future Labour government to secure that new relationship.

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Alternatively, if the DUP refuses to co-operate with Sunak and his deal fails, an agreement with the EU and the resumption of devolved government in Northern Ireland could be the first big diplomatic win for a new Labour government. Labour has been working hard to build a relationship with the DUP in recent months and sources are confident they have a level of trust that the present government has squandered. In either case, Labour looks set to gain.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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