Brexit’s final chapter?

This week’s big story in Europe has been the announcement on Monday of a deal between the British government and the European Union over the Northern Ireland protocol – the last major outstanding item, at least on paper, from Britain’s 2020 exit from the EU.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak, whose four months in office have not been an easy time, now at least has a real achievement to point to. And EU leader Ursula von der Leyen looked genuinely pleased at having a negotiating partner who seemed more in touch with reality than any of his three predecessors; in return, the EU was willing to make concessions that it had previously resisted.

Nonetheless, there’s not much in this deal that couldn’t have been predicted a year ago. Although it modifies the Northern Ireland protocol, the fundamental idea of the latter remains in place: Northern Ireland will remain subject to some EU rules and will function to some extent as part of the customs union, in a way that the rest of the UK will not.

This was the principle that Boris Johnson accepted way back in 2019 as the price of his withdrawal agreement with the EU. Having won an election on that basis, Johnson then tried to renege on the deal, introducing legislation that would have enabled Britain to override the protocol.

The dispute cooled for a while after a trade agreement was signed at the end of 2020, but Johnson soon went back to making trouble, which only escalated after he was forced out of the prime ministership in the middle of last year. In this he has been abetted by the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, for whom the protocol in any form is intolerable because it acknowledges a different status for Northern Ireland.

The DUP proceeded to hold the politics of the province hostage, refusing to participate in the formation of a government for Northern Ireland following the election held last May. Sunak’s deal meets some of its objections at the margin, but doesn’t really touch the issue of principle. The DUP now says it will take its time to consider whether that is enough; parties that support the protocol have a large majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but institutionalised power-sharing means that no government can be installed without the DUP.

That has ramifications at Westminster as well, since the extreme wing of Brexiters in the Conservative Party, who worked closely with the DUP to frustrate Theresa May’s deal-making back in 2018-19, may take their lead from it when it comes to voting on the new agreement. Although they let Johnson get away with selling out the DUP in the first place, Sunak may not get the same tolerance; they do not see him as culturally one of their own in the way Johnson was, and his closeness this week with von der Leyen will not have helped.

But at this stage there’s very little the Brexiters can do. Most of the party (and, one assumes, the electorate) is thoroughly sick of the issue, and there is no doubt about the agreement getting through the House of Commons because it will be supported by the Labour opposition. And although polls now show that a large majority thinks that Brexit was a mistake, there’s not much the pro-Europeans can do either: Labour’s Keir Starmer is not going to say anything about rejoining until after he’s won government, and probably not until his second term.

A Starmer government is still the overwhelmingly likely outcome of next year’s election, by which time the Tories will have been in power (under five different prime ministers) for nearly 15 years. But by trying to distance himself from the Johnson tradition of politics-as-trolling, Sunak may at least be able to give his party a fighting chance.


PS: Martin Kettle in the Guardian now has a very good write-up of the politics of the deal. He notes two important things:

First, it has suggested that Sunak is capable of rebuilding at least some of the reputation for Conservative competence. Second, it confirmed that he may be starting to steer the Tory party towards a more moderate and pragmatic place.


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