Rishi Sunak has gone from being a prime minister who has achieved nothing beyond restoring the economic stability trashed by his predecessor to one who has secured the largest improvement in relations with the EU since the Brexit vote in 2016. He has resolved an issue that has incapacitated British politics for six years and, in doing so, has freed up his energy to focus on the priorities of voters.
The agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol makes Sunak look effective and competent. The aura of timid aimlessness has been alleviated – somewhat. It gives him momentum. The deal reduces checks on goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and gives the UK an effective veto on EU laws that would affect Northern Ireland. Depending on the reaction of MPs, it could close an opening for Boris Johnson’s return. And as one former cabinet minister happily put it to me, the deal has restored the UK’s international standing. Labour might want to drop “Make Brexit Work” as a slogan lest they draw attention to this achievement.
With that all said, I’m sceptical about the political benefits of the “Windsor framework”, as the deal is known. What reward could be gained from “Getting Brexit Done” was cashed-in when we left the EU. That the Northern Ireland protocol led to onerous custom checks and the collapse of the devolved government at Stormont did not undermine that perception. “Getting Brexit Done” was regularly presented as the crowning achievement of Johnson. Repurposing that narrative for an election in 2024 or 2025 would feel anachronistic and out of touch to those voters in Britain who will decide the next election. Instead, the NHS, economy and immigration will be playing on their minds.
The truth is most people in Britain don’t care about Northern Ireland. Polling for the New Statesman from Redfield & Wilton Strategies showed in 2021 that most British voters did not feel connected to the people of Northern Ireland or only a little connected. YouGov polling from 2020 showed that most Brits wouldn’t have been bothered if Northern Ireland left the UK.
This is part of the reason, I think, that Labour does not make its plans for a closer relationship with the EU a big part of its pitch to voters. Instead, it has repurposed the language of Brexit – through the Take Back Control Bill – for something unconnected to the EU: devolution. The wisdom of that strategy lay in the recognition that the Brexit vote was not about regulations, court jurisdictions and dual regulatory arrangements – which are the main points of the Windsor deal.
Sunak has solved many of the problems with the protocol, but good governance doesn’t always produce political benefits.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.