With a potential resolution to the Northern Ireland question now on the table, Rishi Sunak could soon be free to focus harder on his five core goals ahead of the next election, says Paul Montague-Smith, senior counsel – public affairs at MRM.
Since becoming Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s strategy has been to avoid internal party fights, keep his head down and show perhaps dull but steady competence.
He has been scraping barnacles off the Tory ship which were likely to cause conflict and reduce his chances of avoiding a messy end on electoral rocks. Dropping compulsory housing targets, removing significant elements of the Online Safety Bill, reversing Liz Truss’s decision to unban fracking, abandoning legislation on schools following defeats on amendments in the Lords, et cetera.
The Prime Minister has been carefully paring back the work of government to concentrate on his five key pledges to halve inflation, avoid recession, reduce the national debt, cut NHS waiting lists and tackle illegal immigration.
One of the biggest and most stubborn barnacles for Conservatives over the decades has, of course, been Europe. David Cameron sought to lance that boil once and for all with the referendum. With the result going against expectations, divisions with the Conservative party were increased rather than put to bed.
The status of Northern Ireland within the UK and how Brexit would impact the province was always going to be a Gordian knot.
Not only did Boris Johnson not have an oven ready Brexit deal as he said, the deal he eventually struck, as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, was seen as a betrayal by the Democratic Unionist Party, who had effectively kept the Tories in power from 2017 through a supply and confidence arrangement.
Johnson had promised there would be no border down the Irish Sea and no checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Both promises were broken to get a Brexit deal over the line.
Rishi Sunak may have preferred to try and kick the problem of the Northern Ireland Protocol down the road, but it was unlikely that the EU would have agreed to continue to delay its proper implementation beyond next general election, perhaps 22 months away.
By carefully grappling the issue he may have secured a big diplomatic and political success. The EU has moved significantly from its starting position on trade issues and a veto on proposed EU legislation that would apply to the province. Influential Brexiteers like David Davis and Steve Baker (albeit currently a Northern Ireland minister) have hailed the new framework.
The DUP has not rejected it but is assessing the detail against its seven tests, which is may well be ultimately judged not to have met in full. Fundamentalists in the Conservative European Research Group will certainly be riled with EU law still being applicable in any form in the province. They also won’t like the continuing role for the European Court of Justice, even if it is only for cases referred to it by our courts.
The new framework will be approved by Parliament if it is put to a vote – it has the support of Labour and the Scottish National Party – so the only question is how much internal strife it will cause for the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister.
If the DUP and government backbenchers can accept the deal as a workable framework that secures the place of Northern Ireland with the United Kingdom economy and political system, it will be a major achievement for Rishi Sunak, who will be better placed to focus on his five promises to voters in the run up to the next election.
The timing of any vote on the deal is currently uncertain. If it falls after the Budget on 15 March, don’t be surprised if you see one or two fully funded tax cuts announced, despite what the Chancellor has said.
Many of the Brexit purists among the Conservatives are also the most economically libertarian in the party and are deeply unhappy with current levels of taxation. Strategists in Number 10 might conclude that a funded tax cut that wouldn’t spook the markets could help the general mood music.