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Rishi Sunak played a difficult hand well

Rishi Sunak speaks during a joint news conference with the European Commission President on a post-Brexit deal in Windsor, Britain, 27 February 2023 - CHRIS J RATCLIFFE/Shutterstock

Rishi Sunak speaks during a joint news conference with the European Commission President on a post-Brexit deal in Windsor, Britain, 27 February 2023 – CHRIS J RATCLIFFE/Shutterstock

Remainer MPs should never be allowed to forget their role in creating the mess that is the Northern Ireland Protocol. In the months before Boris Johnson signed up to the Withdrawal Agreement, it was not impossible that they would block the UK from leaving the EU at all. Parliamentarians had tied the government’s hands through the so-called Surrender Act, which effectively removed the option of a no-deal Brexit. Sir Keir Starmer was agitating for a second referendum, while Theresa May had salted the earth through her earlier, bungled negotiations with Brussels.

The Protocol was, therefore, the very definition of an unequal treaty. The Johnson government managed to win concessions on the original May accord, but the UK had been left in a debilitatingly weak position vis-à-vis the EU negotiators. Accepting a deal that would constrain trade between constituent parts of the UK while seeing Northern Ireland subject to EU law was judged to be a price worth paying to get Brexit done.

It was never going to be the end of the matter, however – as even the high priests of EU dogma in Brussels came to see. Ursula von der Leyen attempted yesterday to pose as a guardian of the peace process. Not so long ago, however, each administration took the outrageous decision to briefly invoke Article 16 of the Protocol as part of its desperate efforts to make up for its failure to procure enough Covid vaccines. The present crisis was brought to a head by the DUP exiting power-sharing in protest at the Protocol, jeopardising the very Good Friday Agreement that the EU claims to protect.

This was the muddle that Rishi Sunak took it upon himself to clear up. For a time, it appeared that his answer – the Windsor Framework, which had been expected last week – would be pulled before it was even released. Yesterday, he decided to move, announcing a “decisive breakthrough” and a step change in relations with the EU.

In technical terms, it appears to be an improvement on the original deal. Trade should flow more freely between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with theoretically only goods destined for the EU market subject to onerous customs checks. The Prime Minister stressed that this should end the ridiculous situation in which supermarkets in the province faced empty shelves because of difficulties importing produce from the mainland.

Westminster will also gain the ability to decide on VAT rates for Northern Ireland: last year, Mr. Sunak, then chancellor of the Exchequer, could not hide his frustration that his zero-rating of energy efficiency materials would not apply in the province. It is astonishing to think that a British government ever conceded the right to set tax rates in part of its territory to a foreign power.

The third element is the “Stormont brake”, which Mr. Sunak said would safeguard the sovereignty of the people of Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister suggested that this would allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to stop changes to EU goods rules applying in the province: “If the brake is pulled, the UK Government will have a veto.” Unionists quite justifiably worry that Northern Ireland has been turned into an effective colony of the European Union, subject to laws over which it has no say. It remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister’s “brake” will in practice fix this.

Nobody wishes to make the perfect the enemy of the good. If the Protocol is indeed a little less dysfunctional than it was, then it is a credit to Mr. Sunak that he has made it so. Conservative MPs, as they pour over the legal texts to understand these changes, will not want to oppose them unnecessarily. However, big questions do appear to have been left unresolved. The European Court of Justice, for example, is not just any old court. It is the ultimate guardian of EU law, and has flagrantly used its position to push the Eurocrats’ federalising agenda. Its malignant influence has not been banished from Northern Ireland.

The Protocol creates problems for the rest of the United Kingdom, too. It acts as an argument against diverging from EU rules, because to do so risks creating an even greater regulatory barrier between two parts of the United Kingdom. Mr. Sunak chose not to follow the course some Brexiteers wanted him to take, of unilaterally abrogating the Protocol.

It is clear why. The Prime Minister yesterday heralded a new era of more constructive ties with Brussels. Mrs von der Leyen even linked progress on the Protocol to a potential agreement for the UK on Horizon, the EU science program. It was not hard to draw the inference from the Commission president that Mr. Sunak had succeeded where his predecessors had failed, because he had chosen to prioritize friendlier relations with the European Union.

But friendlier relations to what end? The UK did not leave the EU in order to create enemies. Many Brexiteers had hoped that, in time, ties with Europe would become more cordial rather than less, based on mutual advantage rather than compulsion.

Rishi Sunak played a difficult hand well yesterday: it was arguably his best day yet as Prime Minister. But now he awaits the crucial response of the DUP and the Brexiteers. Time will tell if he has pulled off a political triumph.

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