Rishi Sunak found out the hard way what it’s like to be caught up in the cycle of Brexit wars forever. Despite desperate attempts to keep his party in line, a row that has plagued his predecessors is in danger of erupting again over an overhaul of Northern Ireland protocol that he hopes to announce next week.
The caution of some in the government was betrayed by Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who told a group of journalists earlier in the week – when momentum to reach agreement on the protocol appeared to be stalled – that it would be announced at some point between “now and the end of time”.
For almost fifteen days, experts say, number 10 was transformed into a “bunker”. The Prime Minister took advantage of a break in the parliamentary calendar while MPs were in recess – and the spotlight was on Scotland’s political future – to prepare for his government’s biggest challenge yet.
Most of Britain’s negotiating team in Brussels returned home last week, and John Bew, Downing Street’s top foreign affairs adviser, has been sent to start negotiations with the Democratic Unionist party.
Sunak was stuck on a catch-22, however. The Prime Minister did not want to announce that no agreement had been reached until he was sure that what had been agreed with Brussels would not be torpedoed at home. But the DUP and the hardline Brexiters in the European Research Group of Conservative advocates were refusing to give their blessing until the final text was agreed.
“We’re all ready,” sighed a source close to the talks as the stalemate set in over the weekend.
Parliamentarians who act as ministerial advisers are already said to be on resignation notice. “If it’s a total betrayal, if it’s not good, then I can see myself resigning,” said a parliamentary private secretary. “I know at least two others who share my sentiments.”
Faced with fears of a backlash, the expected timetable for an announcement last Monday and a vote in parliament on Tuesday has slipped. When it became clear that momentum was running out, Keir Starmer sought to tactically apply the pressure.
All six of the Labor leader’s questions to the prime minister on Wednesday were about Brexit and Northern Ireland, each aimed at deepening unease in the government’s Green benches. Will parliament have a vote on any deal? Will Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’ bill replacing the protocol be scrapped? Will the European Court of Justice have any continuing role?
“It was rope-a-drug,” winked a Labor source. “We knew the headbangers would take the bait, so Keir just pestered them a bit and then used the howls of outrage against them.”
The source, agreeing with the prime minister’s aim to increase numeracy in schools, said Sunak’s weakness was “ironically, partly about mathematics”. “He doesn’t have the numbers to control his party – and he’s not doing any of the work we did to fix his party,” they said. “Until he does, he will always put his party above his country.”
The benefits of removing checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland and the political prize of re-establishing the division of power in Stormont are obvious. But a successful overhaul of Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements would also make a virtue of what some critics see as the prime minister’s weakness: his detailed managerialism.
A government source said he hoped Sunak’s ability to focus on the intricacies of complex negotiations and his pragmatism could prove the difference, providing the prime minister with personal renewal as well as political triumph.
He was deeply involved in the negotiations and efforts to sell a deal, hosting a group of MPs associated with the Conservative union’s research unit for breakfast at No. European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, suggesting that more complicated issues that can only be resolved at the political level were passed down the chain of command.
Northern Ireland’s business leaders were briefed personally by Sunak on the status of negotiations in a conference call on Thursday, but were kept on hold. A Whitehall source said it was partly to “give the impression of being busy”, while callers said their involvement was encouraging and impressive, but “the content wasn’t necessarily new”.
Despite the fervor that grips some parts of the conservative party, others seem happy to avoid discussions about the leaked details of a deal, or whether Sunak will withdraw the bill from the protocol. Only about 20 MPs showed up to hear Cleverly address the 1922 Bench Committee of Deputies and answer his questions.
“My colleagues should probably read and understand the deal we made, and voted for, before commenting on how awful it is,” said one who is keeping his board.
There remains a debate at issue 10 about the risk of deepening divisions by holding a vote. Sunak promised that parliament would be able to “express its opinion”.
One senior Conservative believed it would be “nearly impossible” for the government to rely on Labor votes. “We would be crucified,” said the counselor. “This is not at all in the head of the PM. It doesn’t get us anywhere.”
Downing Street sources stressed that his aim is not necessarily to gain firm support from the DUP, but that the party at least not openly denounce him. That might secure enough support in the Conservative party, they believe.
Sunak initially avoided moving forward with the deal, but appears poised to try to stand up to his potential critics. “You can’t wait forever for these people, they will never be 100% on board,” said a source close to him.
It is no coincidence that the impetus to announce an agreement coincided with ministers receiving new instructions to open negotiations with unions on public sector wages.
A senior official conceded that there was now a consensus that little could be achieved without addressing some key issues that were ‘obstructing’ the governing process – relations with Europe and preparations for union action being two major black holes for resources. .
“The PM wants to get involved in these difficult problems,” they said. “This is where your personality is a real asset. He works incredibly hard to absorb the details. If we can demonstrate that he is a prime minister who is solving seemingly intractable problems, then we start to gain some breathing space and talk about bigger ambitions.”