We have reached the Brexit endgame. And those of you who have been paying attention will know that the final curtain is closing not merely on the Northern Ireland Protocol talks, but on the very project itself.
That is not to take away from Rishi Sunak’s impressive – and perhaps unexpected – communications coup as he hails a new “breakthrough” deal. In the run-up to today’s great reveal, some Tories might have feared that he lacked the charisma and powers of deception that enabled his nemesis Boris Johnson to get his own deal over the line. But so far his strategy has been rigorously smooth. In particular, calling his agreement the Windsor Framework was a masterly move, infusing a sense of historic import – and august finality – to the text.
It also looks to be the case that the Prime Minister has made some genuine practical improvements to the original Protocol. It would be no trivial thing for the same food to be consistently available in supermarkets in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK. Nor for Northern Ireland to have access to the same approved medicines as on the mainland at any given time. If it works, a new green lane for the vast majority of goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain should significantly reduce the burden of paperwork.
And yet I cannot help but worry about what his deal does not do. Regrettably, it does not appear that the PM was able to secure an agreement that restores the Union’s integrity. Ursula von der Leyen’s bald response to a question about whether Northern Ireland will remain subject to European Court of Justice oversight was perhaps the most telling moment of yesterday’s press conference. “The European Court of Justice is the sole and ultimate arbiter of EU law,” she mundanely reasoned. “So the ECJ will have the final say on all EU law and single market issues.”
And with that, Northern Ireland’s fate as a vassal state of Brussels was blandly confirmed. The devil will be in the detail, but a new “Stormont brake” on new EU goods rules is unlikely to be the constitutional game-changer that some hope it will be. The risk is that the Protocol will continue to act as a brake on the UK as a whole diverging from EU rules, lest it create even greater regulatory barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister should not be judged too harshly for his deal’s shortcomings. He has not so much killed Brexit as failed to revive it. It was Theresa May who hobbled the project at birth by squandering her majority, which fatally weakened Britain’s negotiating position. But it was Boris Johnson who ultimately signed Brexit’s death warrant by agreeing to a barely reformed version of her original Withdrawal Agreement.
I was one of them few columnists to point out back in 2019 that the Johnson deal was a dud. But it should have been obvious to all but the willfully blind that his “oven-ready” offering was really just May’s accord with a twist of lemon. The celebrated frontstop was, after all, merely doublespeak for a new kind of backstop, as Northern Ireland’s monstrously complicated status would force the UK to remain in the EU’s orbit. The only other major tweak – which established that future arrangements would be decided based on a free trade deal with “regulatory alignment” rather than a customs union – was meaningless as long as the question of Northern Ireland remained unsettled. This is not to mention the sheer recklessness of agreeing to a border down the Irish Sea in the first place.
Perhaps Johnson had little choice but to agree to a bad deal. Remainers had, after all, undermined our negotiating leverage by voting to rule out a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances. Insiders suggest that Johnson always intended to later renege on unfavorable aspects of the agreement – as was later reflected in his bid to pass the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.
But the fact remains that the Tory party’s insistence three years ago that it had said Brexit done was a deception. And now, the party has neither the will nor the skill to properly finish the job.
This is for the same reason that the Conservatives failed to negotiate a better deal in the first place. None of its leaders have ever shown a genuine willingness to walk away from talks. True to his belief that a better bargain could be struck by building goodwill rather than engaging in brinkmanship, Sunak had actively distanced himself from the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – and now it has been scrapped entirely.
Although some commentators have been quick to assert that his conciliatory approach has been vindicated, we will never know if a more assertive approach would have won more meaningful concessions. (Even if Johnson’s approach of talking the talk on no deal before backpedaling furiously in the crucial run-up to his own agreement was no better.)
The UK has tended to negotiate in a sloppy manner that overlooks the fine print, fixating on whether an outcome can – in the short-term at least – be spun as a British win. This is in contrast to the EU, which grasped the golden rule of effective negotiation: being willing to indulge the other side’s fantasy that they have landed a great deal, while outmanoeuvring them on the details.
It remains to be seen whether Sunak has broken the habit; MPs will have to pore over the details of his new framework to find out whether qualifying procedures and labeling requirements for “green lane” trade could involve new complications, or whether the UK will effectively have to dynamically align with the EU on agri-foods in order to smooth trade in this area in the way Sunak has promised. The DUP will no doubt have their say if the vaunted “Stormont brake” turns out to be a chimera.
It also remains to be seen if all the Tory Brexiteers will fall into line. Those who say that the Spartans scuppering Sunak’s “breakthrough” would only hasten the Conservatives’ slow political suicide miss the point. Like Macbeth, many are tormented with regret at being flattered and manipulated by Johnson into Brexit betrayal. Some have perhaps decided that it’s better to be with the dead than on the torture of the mind to lie. In restless ecstasy”.
The Tory party has always been a survival machine. It has, over the years, forsaken every principle and project it has ever stood for in power’s cause. Despite the best efforts of a handful of Boris supporters, the exhausted party may have enough discipline and will to power left to close ranks behind their leader. The coming days will tell.