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28 February 2023

Rishi Sunak discovers the EU is great after all

Can the Prime Minister, and noted Brexiteer, not hear himself?

By Jonn Elledge

Rishi Sunak, it’s been said many times, has something of the children’s television presenter about him. It’s not just the non-threatening physicality that allows him to bounce and wave his arms, and for it to come across as enthusiastic rather than merely unhinged. It’s also a matter of tone: the gentle, ever-smiling delivery that would be perfect for explaining tadpoles to a very small child.

This morning delivered an excellent example. Against the expectations of the naysayers (such as, in the name of transparency, myself), the Prime Minister seems to have booked a big win, by successfully breaking the deadlock over the Northern Ireland protocol. And the way he’s done it is by ignoring the squawking from offstage right, and treating the European Union as if it’s a political bloc with its own culture and interests, rather than a monster that exists to crush the UK. He did it by acting, ironically, like a grown-up.

But then, in his bouncy, Blue Peter-ish manner, he attempted to sell the deal to the public, and this happened:

“Northern Ireland,” he said at an event in the province, “is in the unbelievably special position, a unique position in the entire world… in having privileged access not just to the UK home market which is enormous – fifth biggest in the world – but also the European Union single market. Nobody else has that. No one. Only you guys, only here… I can tell you when I go round the world and talk to businesses, they know that.”

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The UK is almost certainly no longer the fifth-biggest economy in the world, of course – we fell behind India last year, and are likely to drop more places in the years to come – but let’s put that to one side because, oh my god can this man not hear himself? Does he simply assume the rest of us can’t join the dots? Because if having access to both the UK home market and EU single market is so great, then what possible reason could there be to restrict that privilege to Northern Ireland? Wouldn’t it be better if the entire UK was in that position? Like it was until a couple of years ago?

If being in both the UK and EU markets is so great, then why has Sunak’s party just dedicated the past seven wasted years to the monomaniacal pursuit of ensuring the UK doesn’t get any of the benefits of single-market membership anymore? Are we really to believe that none of the businesses Sunak is apparently talking to around the world when he’s supposed to be running the country have asked him about that?

Oh, and as if that wasn’t annoying enough, another leading Brexiteer, the Lord Ashcroft of Belize, has been tweet-wondering if there might be any way we could get British passport holders back into the EU passport lines at international airports.

Sometimes it feels like these people are stupid. At others, it just feels like they assume the rest of us are. More and more, these days, I’m not sure it matters which.

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

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