After two years of stalemate and much feuding between London and Brussels and the Conservative government and the DUP, Rishi Sunak tried to grab the nettle and break the stalemate.
This stalemate has plagued UK-EU relations and jeopardized the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland.
It is the boldest move of his prime ministerial role and one fraught with risk.
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Pull it and this is a very emboldened beleaguered prime minister.
If he fails, Sunak could see his prime ministerial post sink under the weight of Brexitist rebellions, a resurgent Boris Johnson and ongoing tensions in Northern Ireland.
Where it was clear that Sunak had won on Monday was with Brussels.
The bonhomie between the prime minister and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was evident.
The Prime Minister hailed it as a “new chapter” in EU-UK relations while von der Leyen – perhaps with his old adversary Boris Johnson in mind – stated that they came out of these talks with a “stronger EU-UK relationship” and praised Sunak’s “very constructive attitude from the start to solving problems”.
A new principle, with a new approach, resulted in genuine gains as the EU moved forward in a way that many thought was impossible.
Sunak won concessions that many Brexit watchers thought were not possible months ago, when Johnson conceived the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to unilaterally replace post-Brexit trade deals between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (a bill now abandoned).
The new deal has a “green lane” with no checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea destined to remain in Northern Ireland, while a “red lane” would be used for goods continuing into Ireland and the EU’s single market.
The Prime Minister also said the deal would end the situation where food made under UK rules could not be shipped to and sold in Northern Ireland.
Under the new agreement, Northern Ireland would have the same products, drinks and medicines as the rest of the UK: “We have removed any sense of border in the Irish Sea”.
It also rewrites part of the existing protocol to allow Westminster to set VAT rates in Northern Ireland.
The deal also sought to address the “democratic deficit” that has so angered trade unionists who do not accept being treated differently from the rest of the UK and which has resulted in the suspension of the power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland.
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On Monday, the Prime Minister unveiled the “Stormont brake”, which sought to resolve the issue of Northern Ireland being subject to EU property laws.
Under a new arrangement, the Stormont assembly will be able to oppose the new rules if a total of 30 members from at least two parties decide to activate the brake.
Sunak said it was a “powerful new safeguard based on cross-community consent”.
The question is whether cross-community voting, requiring a majority of unionists and Irish nationalists, rather than a direct majority vote, will be sufficient to satisfy the DUP.
And while the prime minister told lawmakers the deal removed 1,700 pages of EU law and “puts beyond any doubt that we now take back control”, officials also admitted that the Windsor Framework does not remove EU law or jurisdiction. of the European Court of Northern Ireland. .
And the key question to all of this is whether the prime minister’s gamble to catch the nettles will pay off? He’s clearly won over Brussels and Ms von der Leyen, but he now has far thornier characters to bring on board – and the result is still far from certain.
The DUP is predictably playing its cards close to its chest, as we’d hope they would.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that while “significant progress” had been made, “there is no disguising the fact that in some sectors of our economy EU law remains applicable” and said the DUP would now look into on the details of the agreement.
Unionists are also awaiting the legal opinion and verdict of the ‘star chamber’ of lawyers from the European Research Group, who will pore over this deal, as they did with Theresa May and Boris Johnson, to see whether this deal restores British sovereignty.
Much depends on what unionists decide.
As a senior Brexiteer told me this week, it would be “crass” for a Conservative MP not to support a deal if the DUP is satisfied.
Sunak has certainly won over some of his Brexiteers today.
A senior figure told me: “It looks really good and it’s better than I expected”, while Northern Ireland and Brexiteer Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker urged colleagues to support the deal.
“I would resign if I felt I couldn’t support the deal. So, you know, I’m backing it wholeheartedly,” Baker told Sky News late on Monday.
But there are also rumors that this might not be the slam dunk Sunak is hoping for.
When I asked a Brexiteer leader how significant it was that fellow travelers Heaton-Harris and Baker were satisfied, they replied that the two “are just salespeople” and that it was the ERG’s job to look into this text.
“A quick read makes it clear that the EU and ECJ apply to this deal,” said this senior Conservative, adding that the threshold for blocking Stormont was too high.
“This is like a budget. It looks good on day one until the details start to unravel,” they said.
As for Johnson, he too is biding his time to see how that deal plays out. Sources close to him say that the former prime minister “continues to study and reflect on the government’s proposals”.
Number 10 is delighted with how the day has gone, with a senior figure telling me “it couldn’t have gone better”.
This is a watershed moment that could prove to be not only a breakthrough in restoring power sharing in Northern Ireland, but also in mending relations with the EU and the Sunak government.
So far, he has been an underwhelming prime minister who has failed to impress his party or the public. Do that and he could have that honeymoon that eluded him when he took the crown last fall.
What is clear is that Sunak needs something major to move him from a caretaker prime minister sitting at No. 10 to a credible one who has at least a chance to change the Conservatives’ fortunes ahead of the 2024 election.
He and his team know that finally sticking the Brexit needle where those before him have failed would be a great start.
The question is, will your enemies allow it?