My sense during the Brexit negotiations was that a minority with the Eurosceptic movement hankered after No Deal. For some, it would offer the prospect of unconstrained freedom – for example, over fishing rights in British waters. For others, it would bolster their approach to the EU as a political enemy rather than a constitutional encumbrance – at least in the event of disorderly relations and a trade war.
The genius of our leading pro-Brexit politician was to grasp that there was no guarantee that the British people, who had voted to Leave by 52 to 48 per cent, would stand behind a government that smacked its lips at the prospect of No Deal. He wanted a deal, as he always does. And he got one – so wrong-footing the Liberal Democrats, whose election campaign was predicated on No Deal, sweeping aside irresolute Labour, and winning a landslide victory at the polls. That politician was Boris Johnson.
The choice that Conservative MPs must make, sooner or later, is to follow where he led – voting once again for a Northern Ireland Protocol that is less than perfect, just as Johnson’s own version was, or else take a path that ends in No Deal. Admittedly, it might be that this destination could be avoided in the event of Rishi Sunak’s update being rejected by Parliament (not that such an event is remotely likely to happen).
In such circumstances, talks might begin all over again. Or the status quo might stagger on until the next general election. But the logical alternative to backing the Prime Minister’s new version of the Protocol is, in effect, disapplying the present version in UK law by first passing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and then enacting its provisions to that effect. If voters wouldn’t have backed No Deal in 2019, when the whole of the UK’s future was at stake, why would they do so now, when most of it isn’t?
One plausible answer is that what affects part affects all, even though Northern Ireland has long been different. Different because of the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which formalised relations between north and south in its second strand. Different because, 13 years earlier, Margaret Thatcher gave Ireland a formal say in Northern Ireland’s affairs in the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Different right from the start, when the province was given devolution and Stormont rather than integration at Westminster.
All the same, part of the United Kingdom shouldn’t be governed by another law. So were the Protocol engraved in stone, the only course for the Government to take might well be the road likely to end in No Deal – even at the cost of its own destruction. However, the Protocol is written on paper rather than sculpted from granite, and contains the means of its own abolition: Article 13.8. As well as the means of its suspension: Article 16, the safeguarding clause.
In other words, this agreement is unlikely to be the last word on the Protocol – any more than the Trade and Co-operation Agreement, which is reviewed every five years, is on trade. In the next to last resort, the Government could move Article 16, or its equivalent. And at the last, it could bring back the Protocol Bill and trigger its provisions – pleading the doctrine of necessity which allowed Suella Braverman, when Attorney General, to give the Bill the legal thumbs-up.
But that is not where we are this evening. For the moment, the question for Tory MPs is whether No Deal is better than Sunak’s deal, and whether the perfect should be the enemy of the better. For although the legal text of the agreement has not yet been widely read, and the European Research Group’s Star Chamber and others haven’t yet got to work, there can be no doubt that Sunak’s revised Protocol is an improvement on Johnson’s original version.
Whether the matter to hand is the new green lanes; the trusted trader provisions; the movement of pets, chilled meat, plants, medicines, parcels, and the convergence of VAT and excise rules UK-wide, the Prime Minister has clearly made real gains. Above all, the Stormont Brake will, if applied and upheld, cramp the role of the European Court (though the Government would be required to back up the Assembly were the Brake applied).
Sunak’s new version may fail in one crucial respect. It may not be sufficient to persuade the Democratic Unionists to return to government – which, after all, the Government has always suggested was the main purpose of the negotiation. And the reception that the new Protocol gets among unionists may not be improved by the badging of it as the Windsor Framework, and the King’s involvement at the Government’s request.
It’s worth remembering that not all unionists are opposed to the Protocol: at the more business-orientated end of the spectrum, some are content with it in principle, if not in practice. But the hostility to the Protocol among unionist parties reflects an antagonism to it among many pro-union voters – with their atavistic fears of English betrayal. Were they to believe that the monarchy they revere had turned against them, the consequences for Northern Ireland could be very serious.
So to turn to the King was a bold move by Sunak, if not a reckless one. This is intriguing. For the essence of his political strategy to date has been not to take chances. He has stuck to his five aims and technocratic governance. Why, then, has he chanced his arm on an EU-related issue, of all things – the most flammable of all material within the Conservative Party, and the one that has consumed so many Tory leaders?
Reasons have been cited. To restore government in Northern Ireland. To settle the fate of the Protocol Bill. To help revive the economy and turn Brexit back into an electoral plus. All these seem true enough, as far as they go. But the Prime Minister’s willingness to take chances with this negotiation suggests that there’s more to his commitment than that. The explanation surely lies in the kind of Brexiteer he was and man he is.
Some of Sunak’s Tory critics decry him as an Anywhere, to use David Goodhart’s term, not a Somewhere. This is unfair. But the Prime Minister’s family, business and social networks certainly stretch wider than the EU: he sees himself as an internationalist Brit rather than a little European. So he is sensitive to eyebrows raised at Brexit abroad, to the suspicion of it in parts of America, to the loose ends left by leaving the Union and the need for co-operation, not least over small boats.
To a neat, orderly person like Sunak, those strands need tidying up (the EU announced yesterday that Britain may now gain associate membership of Horizon), Britain’s reputation needs repair, and our interests require engagement abroad. It is impossible to imagine the Prime Minister, Johnson-like, shouting “f*ck the Americans”, any more than it is to picture Johnson, Sunak-like, settling down as a matter of course to pore through spreadsheets.
Liam Fox pointedly said in the Commons today that’s refreshing to have a Government that under-promises but over-delivers. And despite his recent visibility, Johnson wasn’t even in the chamber. These are early days. Nonetheless, Sunak may be about, in the wake of his Section 35 decision, to pull off a coup. The man who risked his career by backing Brexit may be recasting our relationship with the EU. And creating circumstances in which undecided voters will give him a second look.