Sunak’s gambit on Northern Ireland suggests a PM putting delivery first, but the voters will have their say
By Ben Coltham, Associate Director

The latest chapter of the Northern Ireland Protocol debate has proven much like those that came before it. If you had ‘unilateral interpretation’, ‘Brexit ultras’, ‘sovereignty’, or ‘seven tests’ on your bingo card, you’d be some way towards a full house already. However, the latest series – and if it were a TV series it would have been cancelled by now because of its abysmal ratings and irritatingly repetitive storyline – had a shock twist. Rishi Sunak, a firm supporter of Brexit, seems keen to break the trend and do something not yet achieved. Yes, Rishi, of dishy fame, is angling to negotiate an agreement that both sides can accept. 

Now, it should go without saying that an agreement is far from certain and the PM’s own party presents one of the biggest stumbling blocks and risks to his premiership. Indeed, only yesterday, the Home Secretary has just indicated that she believes the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is a critical tool in the UK’s negotiating strategy. The very same Bill is seen less by the EU as a negotiating ploy and more as a pre-emptive slap in the face. If the PM holds onto the Protocol Bill as an option, as the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson might hope, the EU has made it clear that a deal will not be forthcoming anytime soon. 

However, the present incumbent of No.10 seems so far undeterred, with Foreign Secretary James Cleverly despatched for “crunch talks” with the EU. Deploying Cleverly as the spearhead is a shrewd move by the PM. The Foreign Secretary was a close supporter of Johnson and a strong backer of Brexit, but has shown some flexibility on Northern Irish negotiations in order to get a deal over the line. By carefully utilising figures such as Cleverly, Sunak can hope to insulate himself (albeit to a limited extent) from any blowback while also adopting some of their Brexit credibility and credentials. It’s worth noting that Sunak himself was keen to position himself as a Brexiteer during the summer leadership campaign, and Brexit remains a crucial issue for the electorate ahead of the next election.

However, even if Sunak had a wall of the most boisterous Brexiteers backing a deal, the PM would still fail to convince some. Rather than the reality of the negotiations, most commentary and conflict has come from emotionally driven and ideological positions. It seems, however, that Sunak has indicated that it is time for a reset and his drive for a deal on Northern Ireland indicates that he has decided reality does matter and that delivery should count for something.  

But is that all that meets the eye? Connecting the recent government reshuffle and an impending agreement with the EU – or not – on the protocol might seem an odd thing to do. Yet, taken together, they indicate a PM who has decided to implement genuine fixes on policy and process issues. In the recent reshuffle, Sunak decided to realign policies within a more coherent departmental structure, renewing more singular focuses on energy and business separately. Despite the usual and predictable criticisms, the mini-reshuffle was widely supported even if the timing was questioned. 

Likewise, regarding the Protocol, Sunak has determined that he can advance on the agreement struck by his predecessor, which cleaved a border in the Irish Sea. By reducing the administrative burden in a way that ensures a more trustworthy relationship with a close and important trading partner, Sunak will appease both businesses and the public alike. Not unreasonably, Sunak’s critics have called out the unhelpful timing of such decisions, the distraction which large organisational changes create and encouraged him to act in a way that appeals more to the electoral base that delivered the 2019 general election win. Sunak is looking to rebuild the Conservative Party’s typical voting base, although this looks unlikely given Labour’s growing lead in the polls.  

In that light, Sunak’s Protocol gambit on a part of the UK with less than 2 million inhabitants and where the Conservative Party returned 0.7% of the vote at the 2019 General Election seems odd. However, amongst a host of at times intractable issues, the Protocol has come to define Brexit and impair the Conservatives. By delivering tangible benefits in Northern Ireland, Sunak can build an electoral platform built on policy success. The economy, health and channel crossings are greater issues in the public’s mind, but with the Protocol he can build his platform, and use that success as a baseline to reset his public image and push his administration forward. If Sunak is to proceed on the protocol, there will be bumpy times ahead and the electoral reward, if it is to come, will not be visible for some time yet.

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