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2 March 2023

The Brexiteers know they’re losing

The momentum is now with those who want a close relationship between the UK and the EU.

By David Gauke

It is testament to the character of one person that the support for the deal on the Northern Ireland protocol is as broad as it is, encompassing both Ursula von der Leyen and Steve Baker. I am referring, of course, to Boris Johnson. Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, was willing to make concessions to the UK because she wanted to demonstrate that better deals were available to better people than Johnson. As for Baker, a leading Brexiteer and Northern Ireland minister, he will be well aware that the principal beneficiary of the deal unravelling would have been Johnson, whom he considers a charlatan.

This is, I accept, a little ungenerous to the current Prime Minister. I wrote last week that Rishi Sunak may have been tempted to kick the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol into the long grass to avoid confronting Johnson and the Tory backbenchers in the European Research Group but that such an approach would undermine his authority. Instead, he has stuck to his task and his authority is enhanced.

Sunak has had three notable successes in his four months in office. He calmed the financial markets by dint of not being Liz Truss. His veto of Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, followed by the controversy over the transgender prisoner Isla Bryson, has proven to be more beneficial to the Union than he could possibly have hoped. But the Windsor framework, as the Northern Ireland deal is known, is by far his greatest achievement.

[See also: What does Rishi Sunak gain from the Northern Ireland deal?]

All three of these successes are about avoiding disasters rather than delivering positive advances. That is not to underestimate them – avoiding disasters is a very welcome tendency in a prime minister – but they will not necessarily be rewarded in the polls, especially when the public was unaware of the risks of a disaster. A trade war with the EU would have been extraordinarily stupid but not inconceivable if we had pursued a more bellicose negotiating strategy.

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That, of course, was the approach favoured by Johnson. It was an approach that demonstrably failed, just as it did in 2019 (the EU Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol), in 2020 (when attempting to reopen the protocol by introducing the illegal Internal Market Bill) and in 2021-22 (further attempts to reopen the protocol). As recently as the weekend, Johnson supporters argued that the only way to get concessions from the EU was to threaten to act unilaterally by proceeding with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Sunak has achieved much more than Johnson because he clearly was not going to proceed with it. The EU saw Sunak as someone who could be trusted.

We should, however, be cautious about some of the claims over the concessions made by the EU. There is still a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, even if there will be far fewer checks than before. The UK will be able to set VAT rates but in very limited circumstances. The Stormont brake – which allows the Northern Ireland Assembly to veto new EU rules – was the big win but it may turn out to be something of an illusion. Any attempt to apply the brake is likely to be met with such painful EU retaliation that it will never be used.

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The Democratic Unionist Party and the ERG have not got all of what they wanted, but how could they? Northern Ireland has to remain aligned on some matters with the EU to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. It is an issue that has to be managed and it will now be managed more effectively and pragmatically than before. For most that is worth celebrating but for the DUP – keen to avoid the restoration of the power-sharing devolved government when Sinn Fein would be the senior partners – there are enough grounds for rejection.

[See also: The rewards of diplomacy]

The ERG has not yet opposed the framework and the momentum is against them. As in 2019, Tory MPs are nervous about letting down the DUP but this is not an insuperable difficulty. They know they are powerful when their support exceeds, say, 40 MPs but if they are reduced to a few hardliners a heavy defeat only weakens them. Some of them have even had enough of being Johnson’s useful idiots.

There is surely another factor, too. Brexit is no longer popular with the public and the role of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland does not necessarily excite many of those who do still support it. The economic damage that would arise from a trade war would only hasten the collapse in public support for Brexit. A truce is necessary.

I have argued here before that it will not be the perennial Brexiteer agitators who bring this truce to an end but those wanting a closer relationship between the UK and the EU. Sunak’s excitement at Northern Ireland being in the “unbelievable position” of having “privileged access” to the UK home market and the EU single market exposes the reality of what Great Britain has given up. He will be reminded of this many times to come.

The Windsor framework does not signal that Brexit is “done” but that Brexit is entering a new phase. It is a new phase in which the eurosceptic forces are now noticeably weaker.

As for Johnson, this has been a setback, but we should be cautious about writing him off. Brexit and Northern Ireland were only ever weapons for him to deploy for his own benefit. These are weapons that have now been decommissioned but it is not beyond him to try to rearm. His ambition remains unsated.

[See also: Sue Gray’s appointment as chief of staff is a coup for Keir Starmer]