This article originally appeared in our Elevenses newsletter.
Good afternoon. Rishi Sunak has been praised for pulling off “the impossible” by the Daily Mail after he secured a deal with the European Union on the Northern Ireland Protocol. The newspaper, which also urged MPs to back Boris Johnson’s deal in 2019, rallied around the new PM as he “nailed a historic Ulster agreement” which effectively tore up his predecessor’s troublesome attempt at overriding post-Brexit rules on the island of Ireland. The Express, similarly, pronounced that we can “Now Take Back Control” – albeit 1,215 days late – while the Metro struck a more whimsical tone, declaring it time to “put the oven on”.
The deal, termed the Windsor Agreement for non-political reasons, is indeed a triumph for Sunak that could usher in a new era of relations between the UK and the EU. It will remove barriers on trade across the Irish Sea and hands a “veto” to politicians in Stormont on EU law – a set of concessions from Brussels that went further than some expected. It also builds in essential protections around the Good Friday Agreement, something US President Joe Biden said was an “essential step”.
But finding a compromise between the EU and the UK is by no means the most impressive aspect. Ever since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016 delegates on both sides have thrashed out creative solutions on how to solve the Northern Ireland issue, coming to an agreement on the matter on no fewer than three occasions. The impressive part is that Sunak appears to have sated at least one of the two other parties involved in this negotiation, and that is no mean feat.
Take Steve Baker, for example, who has dubbed Sunak’s deal as the “bookend” in a “seven-year chapter” in his life. The self-styled Brexit hardman opened up about his issues with mental health after becoming the face of Tory Party in-fighting over the years, “holding the tigers by the tail”, in his words, between Brexit, the Covid recovery group, net zero scrutiny group and tax stuff linked with Conservative Way Forward. He of all people, you might think, would be the one to poke holes in the agreement, but instead has urged his colleagues to “move beyond this awful populism we have suffered” and be “sensible and grown-up” enough to “do the right thing by 1.9 million people and the ripple effects for everybody else”. Other Brexit hardliners have been similarly sheepish.
You might ask why they have chosen to “act in the interests of everybody else” now when, up to this moment, that is the last thing they have sought to do, and the answer could be quite simple. Had Sunak failed to get a deal across the line then a general election could have been unavoidable, and the prime minister, I imagine, would have made that known. Such a threat to their own self-interests has never presented itself in the past, but with the Tories flailing in the polls, it certainly has now. As William Hague recently wrote, it is actually the Brexit crowd who “need this deal most”. After all, it offers the pragmatic relationship with Brussels promised by the Leave campaign.
Rishi’s next headache is to find how to wield the stick with the DUP in the same way, but with Stormont in a seemingly permanent state of paralysis, his finest hour may yet be to come.
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