Sunak must not flinch from a vital fight with the Tory Brextremists

Andrew Rawnsley

The in-tray of a prime minister is never empty and often overflowing, as Rishi Sunak has discovered since he moved into Number 10. Jumbo issues are circling Downing Street like planes stacking over Heathrow. There is the pressing need to resolve the strikes that have been paralysing essential public services for months.
There’s the biggest conflict in Europe since 1945 and complex decisions to make about how the west can best aid the Ukrainians. There’s a looming budget that will have to be very skilfully crafted if it is not to go down badly with the public, the media and his party. Yet observers in Whitehall report that, despite all the other urgent and critical matters jostling for his attention, no issue has been devouring as much of the prime minister’s time and energy as trying to land a deal that would ease the problems with the Northern Ireland protocol.
We ought to give him a bit of credit for putting in the effort to tackle one of the most baleful consequences of Brexit, one that has destabilised Northern Ireland, disrupted its trade and aggravated its population while creating festering sores in the UK’s relationships with both the EU and the US. A success would be a feather in Mr Sunak’s cap. Not a tremendously resplendent feather, because he is trying to fix a mess of his own party’s making while offering no remedies to other negative impacts of Brexit. Nor will the mooted agreement with the EU solve all the Brexit-generated headaches with the Irish border. That said, smoothing the rough edges of the protocol would give Mr Sunak something he could claim as an important achievement. It might counter the prevailing narrative that he is a rudderless prime minister who can’t get anything difficult done and runs for the hills at the first whiff of trouble from malcontents within his party. Beyond being beneficial for Northern Ireland, settling this issue will bring other prizes. The relationship with the EU will be reset on a more trusting basis. That will open the way to mutually beneficial cooperation in vital areas, such as security and unlocking readmission to the £80bn Horizon scientific collaboration programme. It would also remove a source of significant tensions with Joe Biden’s administration.
The outlines of a deal are known. To defuse an acute grievance about the current state of affairs, the EU has conceded that products travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will go through a “green lane” with minimal paperwork and inspections. Only products destined for the Republic of Ireland, and thus into the EU, will travel through a red lane with customs checks. The UK would accept that the European court of justice has to be the ultimate arbiter of single market laws, but with a mechanism designed to resolve disputes without the need to involve the court. A pragmatic compromise eliminating the worst defects of the operation of the protocol is available. Sources in Brussels say a deal is essentially done. Cabinet ministers were led to expect that they would get sight of a draft agreement last week, only then to be disappointed.
As so often with the sorry saga of Brexit, the obstacle to an agreement is not the EU, but closer to home. Mr Sunak is meeting predictable resistance from Tory Brextremists and the Democratic Unionist party. The DUP has a limited vocabulary that rarely extends beyond “no” and “never”. They opposed the Good Friday agreement, which brought a close to decades of sectarian violence, when it was signed 25 years ago. There was a chilling echo of the grim years when gunmen tried to assassinate an off-duty police officer in Omagh in front of his young son. The DUP have set “seven tests” for any deal that arrogantly assumes they should be the sole judge and only jury of what is good for Northern Ireland and the UK. This grandstanding takes some nerve. The DUP backed Brexit against the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland, they scuppered Theresa May’s attempts to resolve the border question and the fools then put their faith in Boris Johnson who concocted the protocol they hate so much. They won less than a third of the seats at the most recent elections for the Northern Ireland assembly, which they have prevented from functioning for more than a year. Given their track record of dire misjudgments and declining popular support, a little humility might be in order. The DUP have a right to a say, but not to a veto. They’ve been wooed by Mr Sunak because he wants them to agree to the restoration of devolved government and because of their relationship with the Tory right. His time may have been wasted. Many are sceptical that the DUP are keen on resuming power-sharing at Stormont, because it would mean serving in a government with a first minister from Sinn Fein. As for the Brexiters in the Tory party, the more practical of them are making positive noises, but the ultras are already frothing that Mr Sunak is going to “sell out” the “true principles” of Brexit.
Oh, please. If anyone has betrayed the national interest, it is these Brextremists. Those trying to sabotage an agreement are the very same people who told us that leaving the EU would be a piece of cake and that Britain would hold all the cards in withdrawal negotiations, the very same people who promised that we would live happily ever after in a land of milk and honey while exulting over the rock-hard Brexit produced by Mr Johnson. Talk of the devil. That incorrigible charlatan is doing his utmost to undermine Mr Sunak and incite a revolt against the prime minister’s diplomacy. Mr Johnson knows no shame. It was he who created the problem Mr Sunak is trying to fix. It was Mr Johnson who promised that there would be no trade border in the Irish Sea – “over my dead body”, he lied – and then agreed terms that created just that. It was Mr Johnson who claimed he had an “oven-ready” deal at the 2019 election and rammed ratification through parliament, only then to turn round and denounce as diabolical the very agreement that he himself had signed. The ever-opportunistic Mr Johnson is no more interested today in Northern Ireland or the wellbeing of its people than he was when he agreed the protocol in the first place. He is motivated only by trying to pave a path to his return as leader of the Conservative party. George Osborne, the former chancellor who knows better than most how cynically Mr Johnson operates, recently remarked: “He wants to bring down Rishi Sunak and he will use any instrument to do it.”
The prime minister shouldn’t have any difficulty securing parliamentary approval for a deal. Sir Keir Starmer has promised Labour’s support, an offer he repeated at the most recent session of prime minister’s questions. This is not because the Labour leader is feeling so altruistic towards Mr Sunak that he wants to help him out of a jam. Sir Keir reckons that reaching out across the aisle makes him look statesmanlike and that will go down well with voters. If Mr Sunak falters in the face of resistance from within the Tory party, Sir Keir will paint him as a craven captive of wreckers and a prime minister so puny that he won’t stand up to them even when he has been guaranteed support from the opposition. That wouldn’t look good, but Mr Sunak fears that he will also look bad if he has to depend on Labour votes. It is perilous for a prime minister to have to rely on the opposition to overcome a rebellion from within his own ranks. That is why Mr Sunak regards Sir Keir’s offer not as a lifeline, but a trap.
You might be tempted to feel a twinge of sympathy for the prime minister. Don’t. These dilemmas are consequences of the Brexit that he backed. And they are a legacy of Mr Johnson, who got to Number 10 in the first place with the endorsement of Mr Sunak. You reap what you sow. The interests of both Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole will be best served if the prime minister strikes a sensible deal with the EU, regardless of the intransigents in the DUP and the irreconcilables in his own party. He risks looking weak if he has to rely on Labour support, but he will most definitely look feeble, both at home and abroad, if he flinches in the face of threats from the very people who trapped us in this Brexit nightmare.
The Guardian