Sunak’s NI deal looks like a Brexit win, but his next steps are complicated | Brexit

The last few weeks of Rishi Sunak’s attempts to finally get Brexit done were characterized by extreme caution. Unlike the many previous attempts to strike deals with Brussels, those in the know remained tight-lipped.

Officials and ministers would only say that talks between the two sides over the Northern Ireland protocol were still a “scoping exercise”. They wouldn’t even admit to the existence of the “tunnel”, the top secret talks that take place just before a deal is struck.

The stakes for Sunak couldn’t have been higher. Here was an opportunity to start mending relations with the EU, to show he could rein in a seemingly ungovernable Conservative party, and to avoid going into the next election still dogged by divisions over Brexit.

But, as several Conservative prime ministers have discovered to their cost, Brexit and the Conservatives are a fiery combination, and the UK’s long and turbulent history with Brussels has a habit of overwhelming leaders. Despite all the progress made in recent weeks, it’s no surprise that there was so much nervousness in Downing Street that everything could still go wrong.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that – three years after Boris Johnson closed the “oven-ready Brexit deal” with Brussels that caused all the trouble on the ground in Northern Ireland – Sunak appears to have achieved what many considered impossible, when finally fixing it.

But getting his Windsor structure over the line with the European Commission would only be half the battle. With his technocratic, evidence-based approach to negotiations mirroring the usual way of doing things in Brussels, closing the protocol deal was the easy part.

Ursula von der Leyen, the chairman of the commission, made it clear that Sunak was someone she could do business with – in stark contrast to Johnson, who took a more belligerent approach. “There was a very constructive attitude from the beginning, to solve problems, to find solutions,” she told reporters.

But previous Brexit deals ran into problems when they reached the Conservative party. Sunak has made the decision to take on the European Research Group of Eurosceptic front-line Conservatives and hopes the rest of his MPs will see that the public has had enough of the Conservative infighting.

He’s leveled with major Brexiters early on, keeping Chris Heaton-Harris, Liz Truss’s Northern Ireland secretary, in place to give him a stake in the talks. His deputy, Steve Baker – the self-described Brexit tough guy – admitted he was willing to back out of the deal, but then read the documents. Now it’s time to “turn the page” on the protocol and “move on to the next chapter,” he said.

The prime minister has launched a charm offensive to persuade other influential Brexiters Conservatives to do just that, inviting the likes of David Davis, who resigned as Brexit secretary over the Theresa May deal, to talks. Davis later said that his instinct was to support the deal and that he expected any rebellion to be limited.

What they and other Brexiter Conservatives seem to have concluded is that the country wants to move on. During the 2019 Brexit wars that ultimately toppled Theresa May, two-thirds of UK voters felt that leaving the EU was the most important issue facing the country. That number now hovers between 15% and 20%.

Sunak gambled on enough Conservative MPs, acknowledging that continuing Brexit wrangling in the run-up to the next election would be election suicide – and that his deal is better than the alternatives.

It appears he has, at the very least, avoided a major riot, a big change from last week when there were warnings that up to 100 Conservative MPs could vote against the deal. Parliament is expected to receive a vote – but not this week, so MPs have time to sift through the legal text.

Conservative leaders are hopeful that the rebellion can be limited to two dozen irreconcilables, meaning the deal can pass without the government having to rely on Labor votes. Some in the government say there may even be electoral benefits for Sunak, appearing not to be afraid to take on hard Brexiters in his party.

Sunak also appears to have neutralized Johnson as a destabilizing force for his Brexit government – scrapping the former Prime Minister’s Northern Ireland Protocol bill now that it is no longer needed as a bargaining chip. “We neither need the bill nor do we have a credible basis for pursuing it,” he told lawmakers. Johnson has – so far – been eerily silent.

But Sunak still has problems with the Democratic Unionist party. He doesn’t need them to support his business, but he does need them to not slam the door on him. If the main aim of the deal is to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland, the failure to get Stormont back up and running any time soon would be a huge blow.

Despite some grumbling from the most hardline DUP element, there are early signs of optimism. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson accepted that “significant progress” had been made – despite some continuing concerns about the current role of EU law.

There was also criticism of the king’s involvement – ​​who, on government advice, accepted an invitation to meet von der Leyen after she and Sunak announced the deal – with senior DUP figures accusing the government of being “deaf”.

Unusually, the government’s deal has gained support from the UK’s main opposition parties – although they point out that many economic and political problems could have been avoided if Sunak’s predecessors had taken a different approach. They will now go away and study the details of the deal. The prime minister must take the victory.

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