Sunak’s NI deal looks like a Brexit victory, but his next steps are tricky | brexit

The last few weeks of Rishi Sunak’s attempts to finally get Brexit done were characterized by extreme caution. Unlike the many previous attempts to get deals with Brussels, those in the know kept quiet.

Officials and ministers said only that talks between the two sides on the Northern Ireland protocol remained a “reaching exercise”. They wouldn’t even admit to whether there was a “tunnel,” the highly secret talks that take place just before a deal is struck.

The stakes for Sunak could not have been higher. This was an opportunity to start restoring relations with the EU, to show he could rein in a seemingly ungovernable Conservative party, and to avoid going to the next election still plagued by divisions over Brexit.

But, as several Conservative prime ministers have discovered to their own expense, Brexit and the Conservatives are a combustible combination, and the UK’s long and turbulent history with Brussels has a habit of crushing the leaders. Despite all the progress that has been made in recent weeks, it is not surprising that there is a lot of nerve in Downing Street that it could all go wrong.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that, three years after Boris Johnson agreed the “oven-ready Brexit deal” with Brussels that caused all the trouble on the ground in Northern Ireland, Sunak seems to have achieved what many considered Impossible, finally fixing it.

But getting his Windsor framework across the line with the European Commission would only be half the battle. With his technocratic, evidence-based approach to negotiations reflecting the usual way of doing things in Brussels, sealing the protocol deal was the easy part.

Ursula von der Leyen, the chair of the commission, was clear that Sunak was someone she could do business with, in stark contrast to Johnson, who took a more belligerent approach. “There was a very constructive attitude from the beginning, to solve problems, to find solutions,” she told reporters.

But where the previous Brexit deals ran into trouble was when they reached the Tory party. Sunak made the decision to take on the European Research Group of second-tier Eurosceptic Conservatives and hope that the rest of his MPs saw that the public was fed up with the Conservatives’ infighting.

He tied up key Brexiters early on, keeping Chris Heaton-Harris, Liz Truss’s Northern Ireland secretary, in office to give him a say in the talks. His deputy, Steve Baker, the self-proclaimed Brexit tough man, admitted that he had been willing to quit over the deal, but later read the documents. Now is the time to “turn the page” on the protocol and “move on to the next chapter,” he said.

The prime minister went on a charm offensive to persuade other influential Brexit Tories to do just that, inviting the likes of David Davis, who resigned as Brexit secretary over Theresa May’s compromise deal, into talks. Davis later said that his instinct was to support the agreement and that he hoped any rebellion would be limited.

What they and other Brexiter Conservatives seem to have concluded is that the country wants to move on. During the 2019 Brexit wars, which ultimately ousted Theresa May, two-thirds of UK voters felt that leaving the EU was the most important issue facing the country. That figure is now around 15-20%.

Sunak has bet that enough Conservative MPs acknowledge that continuing to discuss Brexit in the run-up to the next election would be electoral suicide, and that his deal is better than the alternatives.

It appears he has, at the very least, averted a major rebellion, a big change from last week when there were warnings that up to 100 Conservative MPs could vote against the deal. Parliament is expected to vote, but not this week, to give parliamentarians time to review the legal text.

Conservative whips are hopeful the rebellion can be limited to two dozen irreconcilables, meaning the deal could pass without the government having to rely on Labor votes. Some in the government say there may even be electoral benefits for Sunak, who seems unafraid of taking on staunch Brexitists from his party.

Sunak also appears to have neutralized Johnson as a destabilizing force for his government over Brexit, scrapping the former prime minister’s Northern Ireland protocol bill now that it is no longer needed as a bargaining chip. “We also don’t need the bill and we also don’t have a credible basis to pursue it,” he told lawmakers. Johnson, so far, has been unusually quiet.

But Sunak still has a problem with the Democratic Unionist party. He doesn’t need them to back up his deal, but he does need them so he doesn’t get slammed. If the main point of the deal is to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland, not getting Stormont back up and running soon would be a major blow.

Despite some complaints from the more hawkish element in the DUP, there are early signs of optimism. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson accepted that “significant progress” had been made, despite some ongoing concerns about the current role of EU law.

There was also criticism of the involvement of the King, who, on government advice, accepted an invitation to meet von der Leyen after she and Sunak announced the deal, with senior DUP officials accusing the government of being “deaf”. .

Unusually, the government deal has won the backing of the UK’s main opposition parties, though they point out that many economic and political problems could have been avoided if Sunak’s predecessors had taken a different tack. Now they will leave and study the details of the deal. The prime minister should take the win.

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