There was a triumphalist tenor to the prime minister’s press conference on Monday afternoon. After years of deadlock, Rishi Sunak was promising an end to the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol which has incapacitated British politics since Boris Johnson signed off his “oven-ready deal” in 2019. Stationed alongside European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Sunak told the assembled press in a grand portrait room of the Windsor Guildhall that his new “Framework” heralded a “decisive breakthrough”.
If the political choreography was anything to go by, then Brexit had finally got done. And it was “dear Rishi” (to appropriate von der Leyen’s affectionate label), not Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, wot done it.
Triumphalism, however, has rarely been well-deployed on the topic of Brexit. And this time may be no different. There remains plenty of political wrangling to endure before the prime minister can brush the Protocol into the dustbin history — where Sunak hopes it will soften alongside other ill-fated Brexit covenants like the chequers plan, Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement and the Malthouse compromise (as well as assorted “Peoples Vote” paraphernalia, of course).
Indeed, before the true fanfare can begin, the prime minister must ensure that the Framework is itself not destined for the Brexit skip. The new deal would be far from the first EU-UK “breakthrough” to stare down the scrapheap.
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The “Westminster Framework” contained both anticipated and surprising elements. First, there was the much-briefed green and red lane regime, a new trading arrangement designed to ease customs checks for goods on a one-stop journey to Northern Ireland from GB. Second, there were the newly announced plans on VAT and excise rules, returned to the control of the UK government in a development that will be welcomed by unionists.
But the most interesting part of the deal was the surprise “Stormont brake”. This plan, consciously aimed at Northern Ireland’s unionist community, would enable the NI Assembly to “pull the brake [on] changes to EU goods rules”. Utilising a Good Friday Agreement “petition of concern” mechanism, it would need just 30 members from two separate parties to veto rule changes. One assumes the three unionist parties in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) would work together to pull the lever. The “brake” amounts to a clear concession by the EU — providing both for a rewrite of the EU-UK treaty and a commitment that the ECJ will not arbitrate on the matter.
But here’s the catch: in order to exercise this veto, Stormont must be sitting. The “brake” is therefore a clear attempt to nudge the DUP, the largest voice of political unionism in the region, back into power-sharing arrangements. The party has been boycotting Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly since last May in lieu of an end to the protocol, the Brexit-supporting party’s bête noire.
The canny politics behind the Windsor Framework bears comparison to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, a deal which helped forge the political territory later seised by the Good Friday Agreement.
Back in 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement gave the Irish Republic a consultive role on Northern Ireland policy by way of an all-Irish “conference”. The shtick being that the unionist parties could unpick the conference’s operation by agreeing to power-sharing and assuming such controls themselves.
In this way, the Windsor Framework looks to undermine the DUP’s veto of Stormont’s operation by creating a new incentive for the party to re-enter power-sharing. Now power-sharing does not come at a price (a Sinn Féin first minister and protocol acceptance) but with a reward. The challenge to unionism is clear: for if the DUP continues to exercise its veto on Stormont’s operation, it will get no influence over EU rules in NI.
Thus “Ulster says No” becomes “Ulster says Yes”. Or at least: “Ulster says Yes to the ability to say No some more in the future (this time to the EU)”.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the DUP will chomp the carrot dangled by the prime minister here. Perhaps tellingly, it was another decade before the Anglo-Irish Agreement bore fruit in the power-sharing delivered by the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
However, the canny politics do not stop at the Framework’s details. On Monday, Sunak consciously framed the agreement through familiar tropes of British nationalism in a bid to appeal to Northern Ireland’s unionist community. With a deal signed, sealed and delivered courtesy of Sunak’s constructive cooperation with von der Leyen, Sunak’s audience immediately changed. The banal Twitter diplomacy between foreign secretary James Cleverly and EU negotiator Maroš Šefčovič was at an end — Sunak was now appealing directly to potential naysayers.
“We have removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”, Sunak declared confidently. It was a vindication of the DUP’s argument, oft-rubbished by prime minister Boris Johnson throughout 2019, that the protocol has instituted a border within the United Kingdom.
The prime minister added: “The same quintessentially British products like trees, plants, and seed potatoes — will again be available in Northern Ireland’s garden centres”. Much noise has also been made about “British bangers” (sausages) now available in an Ulster supermarket near you. Evidently, Sunak’s rhetorical approach has seen the Windsor Framework wrapped tightly in the Union Jack, delivering in some senses on the “red, white and blue Brexit” promised inscrutably by Theresa May in 2016.
Another coat of red, white and blue paint was applied to the Framework by means of a meeting between King Charles and von der Leyen. The tea-based tête-à-tête had caused some significant controversy as it was briefed out over the weekend, with former cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg cautioning that it was “constitutionally unwise” to involve the sovereign in such matters.
There were worries that Sunak was unnecessarily antagonising his opponents with the move, but the truth is the King’s presence will do little to sway hardliners on the deal in either direction. One wonders, however, how it will be received by the DUP’s grassroots base, to whom leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is in tow — and for whom regal reassurance, however subtle, may soften a coming climbdown.
In good news for the prime minister, the DUP gave a cautious welcome to the Windsor Framework on Monday. There was no “No”, less still no “Never”; instead, Sir Jeffrey issued a statement saying “in broad terms it is clear that significant progress has been secured across a number of areas” but that “there can be no disguising the fact that in some sectors of our economy EU law remains applicable in Northern Ireland”. The response was probably the best Sunak could have hoped for.
And what of the clutch of Conservative die-hards who have been laying the groundwork in recent days for another Brexit rebellion? Well, unlike previous such “breakthroughs”, the Framework is yet to accumulate a series of denunciations and disavowals from Brexit purists. Instead, the European Research Group insists it is combing the agreement vicariously through lawyers, in a bid to ensure there is no remainer stitch-up buried in the footnotes.
The warm reaction of self-styled “Brexit hard man” Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland minister who spent the weekend on “resignation watch”, would have been a cause for celebration for the prime minister. The former ERG was even tasked with selling the deal to the deal, telling one interviewer that the Framework was so good it left him “emotional”.
So, is that it? Is Brexit really done? Not quite yet is the answer — and the more excitable Framework triumphalists would be wrong to suggest that the wrangling prompted by Britain’s EU withdrawal is over. But the PM will be hoping that his party has just entered a tunnel on the European question, from which it will emerge with a new settled will. In truth, it will not just be Liz Truss and Boris Johnson whom Sunak eclipses in achieving a Protocol resolution — but Theresa May, David Cameron and John Major. If the Framework works, and unites the Conservative party with limited DUP grumbling, it would be a striking, historic achievement for any prime minister.
With both the ERG and the DUP conferring with lawyers, only time will tell whether Sunak has softened the climbdown enough for them to at least not oppose his Brexit deal. But the prime minister knows the stakes have never been higher. An outbreak of Brexit harmony might just bury Boris Johnson, the protocol’s political progenitor, and result in a broader revivification of his premiership.
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