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28 February 2023

Rishi Sunak has proved himself – but trouble still lies ahead

The PM’s Northern Ireland triumph won’t be enough in the face of deep domestic discord.

By Andrew Marr

Rishi Sunak has become Prime Minister. I exaggerate, but only slightly. Until his agreement with the EU on post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland was announced this week, the nature of his authority was dubious. Unelected by Tory party members, unchosen by the public, he was besieged by voices, none louder than Boris Johnson’s.

Clever, decent, agreeable, Sunak could also seem somehow spindly and unconvincing. Much of his party was waiting, arms calmly folded, for him to fail, and looking ahead to the local elections this spring with a kind of hungry fatalism. No longer.

There’s always a danger in exaggerating turning points, but we should cheer this deal, rubber-stamped in Windsor. Ahead of its announcement, Sunak was frequently criticised for being “bad at politics” because he failed to properly square the Democratic Unionist Party and his internal Tory critics.

Instead, he is revealed as patient, wily and ruthless, and rather good at politics. The details of the negotiation were kept tight. Key parts of it had been carried out by hardcore Brexiters such as the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly; the one-time “Spartan” leader Steve Baker was placated with impeccable timing, and his endorsement proved more useful than anyone in selling the deal.

Northern Ireland is deal a “turning point” for Rishi Sunak – and Brexit 

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

Johnson’s team got a polite but firm phone call and the former leader absented himself from the Commons at the crucial time, retiring to his rhododendron bushes with scarcely a rustle. He had centred his “helpful” advice on keeping Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in line with the brutal weapon of the protocol bill. Sunak – “dear Rishi” to Ursula – got what he needed by friendly negotiation, and casually ditched the legislative blunderbuss.

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There may yet be trouble ahead. But who predicted Sunak could pass through the hot gates of the “insoluble” protocol dilemma so elegantly? There is still the DUP. But even here the early signs are gently positive. It likes the Stormont brake, which allows Northern Irish politicians (there must be 30 and they must come from two parties at least) to disapply new EU laws. But they can only use that brake if the power-sharing assembly is sitting, and therefore the DUP must return to it. Clever.

We shouldn’t exaggerate. The Sunak administration continues to face deep domestic discord. Having thrown himself into the protocol talks, the Prime Minister needs to throw himself personally into resolving the strikes in the NHS. The Budget will be difficult and I’d expect Johnsonian rebels to focus on defence spending and national security. While the Ukraine war goes on, and with cold economic winds beginning to blow from the US, it’s hard to see the return of much prosperity this year.

Most intriguing is whether the Windsor deal really does lead (as both Sunak and Von der Leyen claimed) to a new chapter in British-EU relations. The Commission president more or less announced the revival of the UK’s participation in the Horizon scientific cooperation programme, and talks will start with renewed urgency on how to resolve the issue of small-boat crossings in the Channel. But does Sunak want to carry on down this path of improved relations? It would mean ditching the other highly controversial bill in the Lords, the one that obliterates all inherited EU law without time for proper parliamentary replacement by the end of this year?

I suspect that despite his declaring himself a passionate Brexiter, Sunak fundamentally thinks most voters don’t want to be bothered – that the country is simply exhausted by the endless drama, shakily overdosed in political adrenaline – and therefore that the least-fuss leader will do best.

By getting this deal and selling it boldly, he has won himself his own platform. By facing down his enemies on the right of the party – they are not opponents, they are enemies – he defines himself as Prime Minister in a way that wasn’t true before this week. He seems, inevitably, more substantial. All this may even begin to supply Sunak’s Downing Street the narrative for an election victory – for, in the words of that profound philosopher Grandpa Potts, from the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success.

[See also: Rishi Sunak has proved himself – but trouble still lies ahead]

For Keir Starmer, this has been an ambiguous episode. The deal has staunched a bleeding wound in the nation’s politics. But simultaneously, his own path to victory suddenly looks a bit steeper. He is no longer facing a man he can dismiss as weak, or who failed to stand up to his party. That was a potent attack line that might have continued until the general election. It’s gone.

Furthermore, because Sunak has so clearly distanced himself from Boris Johnson, it will be a little harder for Labour to play the “continuity of chaos” card. The vague but powerful feeling in the country that “we can’t take much more of this lot” will be diminished; the political algebra that equates Johnson, Liz Truss and Sunak no longer works.

Starmer has already shown himself enough of a common-sense patriot and a political realist to take all this on the chin and warmly welcome the deal. In fact, the warmer the better; because it is in his tactical interest to deepen suspicion between Sunak and the Tory right. If Sunak is normalising politics, returning the main arguments to public services, tax and living standards, and Labour can’t win on that ground, then Labour doesn’t deserve to win at all.

However, in a relatively rare week of political optimism, let’s not forget that failure may still lie ahead. The most important danger is physical. Senior members of the pro-Union Ulster Volunteer Force have warned Belfast journalists that they will “wreck the place” and “the streets will be in flames” if any Irish Sea border remains at all. Brexiter Tories tell me they fear that behind the DUP – “the men in suits” – stand “the men with tattoos” and that if the DUP eventually, regretfully, says no to power-sharing, a slide into violence is inevitable.

These are the menaces that Downing Street has decided to ignore. The DUP’s fear that Northern Ireland is on a slow but clear path towards uniting with the Republic is not unreasonable. But is the Windsor framework worthy of a last-ditch rebellion this year? Because after all, it’s not a big ditch. The DUP won 21 per cent of the vote in last year’s assembly elections, down from 28 per cent in 2017, and over 30 per cent of Northern Irish votes in the last general election.

Its friends at Westminster are a diminished band. Ever since Enoch Powell sought election as an Ulster Unionist in 1974 there has been a friendliness between Unionism and the right of the Tory party. Andrew Hunter defected to the DUP in opposition to the Good Friday Agreement in 2002, which presumably came as a slight surprise to the voters of Basingstoke. More recently, shared enthusiasm for Brexit strengthened links on the right. But time and office have thinned out the “Spartans”, and among Tories I detect more weariness with Ulster Unionist blocking than ever before.

It is still impossible to be sure how this will play out – never underestimate the vanity and ambition of individual politicians – but it looks as if Sunak has gambled and won big. This is a good deal. It is good for Northern Ireland, bringing the possibility of stability and greater prosperity. And as Britain needs deals with European leaders it’s good for Britain. It changes the weather.

I have argued here before that Rishi Sunak could not lead until he decided who he was, Brexit radical or national unifier. Now he has publicly made his choice and is the better for it. The sharp arguments about our social and economic future haven’t gone away. But this elevates British politics.

Read more:

Keir Starmer essay: This is what I believe

Keir Starmer plays divide and conquer with Northern Ireland deal

Can Rishi Sunak solve the Brexit Schleswig-Holstein question?

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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission