Back in December, we had a look at what the Government would need to do to get a Protocol deal over the line and whether or not it seemed to have a plan in place to do that.
The key question, according to those we spoke to, was whether or not the Democratic Unionists could be signed up to whatever deal was struck between London and Brussels.
Left to their own devices, ministers would probably do a face-saving deal in exchange for a quiet life. And as trade is a reserved issue, they could go over the heads of the Unionists, as Boris Johnson did in the first place.
But Rishi Sunak also wants to have Stormont back up and running in time for the quarter-centenary of the Belfast Agreement in the Spring, when Joe Biden (sigh) wants to visit. And the DUP does currently have a veto on whether or not the devolved Assembly can function.
The DUP also have their allies on the Conservative benches, such as the European Research Group, who might not quite have been prepared to actually vote down the Protocol in the first place but are absolutely up for kicking off about it now.
Watching James Cleverly this week, one could suspect that we are watching the choreographed mating dance of a closing deal. On Tuesday and Wednesday, there were stories about breakthroughs; today, the Foreign Secretary appears in sombre mien to counsel that serious differences still remain. All that could be a bit performative.
On the other hand, the situation with the local parties seems genuinely not great. Sinn Fein and the SDLP are angry at Cleverly because he insisted on inviting Michelle O’Neill, SF’s Northern Irish leader, to roundtable talks instead of Mary Lou Macdonald, its overall leader.
Meanwhile the DUP continue to insist that despite progress on “some technical issues”, an overall deal is not close, and the ERG has shown no indication that it has shifted on its red line regarding the role of the European Court of Justice.
And unlike the Government, neither of the latter two have much incentive to do a deal. A row over the Protocol could a lightning rod for Tory backbench disaffection, of which there is plenty about.
Meanwhile the Unionists seem well past the point when the promise of a bit of extra cash (the usual remedy to Stormont truculence) will induce them to back down. As sources close to the party explained in December, opposition to the Protocol unites all the Unionist parties, and notwithstanding issues of principle the economic friction it would create if fully enforced far outweigh any benefits from extra investment by London or Washington.
(For its part, the White House continues to be unhelpful by Joe Kennedy III, a “self-proclaimed Irish Republican” and failed would-be senator, as its Special Representative to Northern Ireland, a role Sunak should abolish. Certainly not the sort of behaviour likely to encourage the DUP to make sure Stormont is up and running for the President’s big visit.)
P.S. I have in the past been quite critical in this column of Steve Baker’s often cack-handed interventions in the Northern Irish debate. I wondered if he read it. Turns out he does.