Rishi Sunak’s next problem

Anand Menon

Every now and again, something strange happens between the UK and EU: erstwhile adversaries become allies. It happened when Theresa May returned from Brussels with a deal in 2018. And it happened again on Monday as Ursula von der Leyen and “dear Rishi” appeared together in Windsor. The prime minister has taken a huge political and electoral gamble. And only time will tell whether it will pay off.
First things first. This is a clever deal that addresses many of the UK’s concerns about the operation of the existing Northern Ireland protocol in a manner that is acceptable to the EU. That is no mean feat. Clever solutions have been found to apparently intractable problems, whether these pertain to medicines or sausages. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean much. May’s deal was a masterpiece of circle squaring, for all the good it did her. And, beneath the spin, there are aspects of the deal that are not all they’re portrayed to be. The “Stormont brake” is unlikely to be used that much. The government itself admits it is the “last mechanism available” to deal with updated or replaced EU acts that will (in the EU’s words) have “significant impact specific to everyday life of Northern Ireland in a way that is liable to persist”. Its use will, moreover, trigger a lengthy process of negotiation, and can prompt the EU to legitimately take “appropriate remedial measures”. A curious kind of brake.
All that being said, I have to admit I underestimated the prime minister. Whether through luck or judgment or a combination of both, he has brought home his deal at a moment when opposition within his party has largely evaporated. Whether because of boredom with Brexit, a perception that this leader cannot be replaced, or the prevalence of other concerns (net zero, China, tax), the fire seems to have gone from many Brexiter bellies. Sunak’s strategy is clear. He is setting himself up as the practical prime minister practising grown-up policies aimed at getting things done. The potential advantages of this approach are clear. It allowed him to “get Brexit done” in a way none of his predecessors managed. It also cuts what Brexit ground there was from under Labour’s feet. It is now hard to manoeuvre the proverbial fag paper between the Tory and Labour positions on Brexit – don’t hold your breath waiting for “We’ll sign a sanitary and phytosanitary measures agreement – they won’t” election posters.
Third, resolution of the standoff over the protocol opens the way to some easy wins. Re-admittance to the Horizon research programme is one. The potential for a fruitful (if only in rhetorical terms) summit with President Macron another. Longer term, the normalisation of relations (remember, the European Commission had told staff to limit their meetings with their British counterparts) will allow for more effective collaboration across the board, not least when it comes to dealing with the war in Ukraine. And finally, of course, the British people don’t really care about the protocol. They no longer even care that much about Brexit – which has fallen out of the top 10 issues of concerns to the public. Sunak will probably benefit from being seen to focus on the issues that do matter to them, rather than waging a war with Brussels over an issue few outside Northern Ireland care about.
Yet with opportunities come risks. Sunak’s strategy is designed around the implicit message that Boris Johnson really was a bit useless. That style over substance is no way to govern. That the British people need someone serious in charge to get things done and address their priorities. He seems to have got away with it so far, but it will only inflame opinion among Johnson allies on the benches behind him. And there are struggles to come. A budget that fails to cut taxes will irritate many of the same folk. As will the decision Sunak now seems destined to take not to press ahead with winding up swathes of EU law at the end of this year (why spend so much time and energy building trust with the EU now if you plan to squander it all in a few months’ time?). The prime minister seems to have won this battle with his party, but there may be more to come.
Then there is the electoral calculus. Brexit was the issue that united the coalition that Boris Johnson assembled in December 2019. This isn’t to say that leave voters are opposed to some rapprochement with the EU: 57% are in favour of a closer relationship. That being said, the question remains as to how, given that Brexit is no longer a dividing line between the parties and the prime minister seems intent on building a collaborative, rather than competitive, relationship with Brussels, he can hold that unwieldy group together. Ultimately, of course, the effectiveness of Sunak’s strategy hinges on his ability to deliver. His rapprochement with the EU will not seriously impact on the state of the UK economy.
Nor, for that matter, would a good summit with Macron solve the small boats crisis. But he has cleared himself some space with his Windsor framework, avoided a showdown with the EU, neutralised it as an electoral issue and, for now at least, earned the plaudits of most of his colleagues. Which, at a minimum, is a good start.