1 March 2023

The real prize of Sunak’s deal? Protecting Brexit from Keir Starmer’s Labour


One rule I try to live by when writing about the Northern Ireland Protocol is that politicians and journalists from the mainland should be very cautious before second-guessing Northern Irish unionists about the merits of any deal.

There is a powerful temptation for many on this side of the water to grab onto anything which, as GB News’ Mark Dolan put it, would allow us to stop talking about Brexit and ‘get on with our bloody lives’.

But it is much more an existential question for them than it is for us; if the Democratic Unionist Party do end up deciding the deal isn’t good enough, we should not rush to dismiss their concerns, even if we disagree with them.

That said, Rishi Sunak does seem to have pulled off a much better deal than anyone, including me, was expecting – and I perhaps have less excuse than most, given that sources working on the negotiations told me they had arrangements which seemed to hit the DUP’s seven tests. At the time I didn’t really believe them.

By no means is it perfect. The European Court of Justice remains the final arbiter of some law in Northern Ireland, albeit far less now than prior to the Windsor Framework; areas such as state aid have not been dramatically altered.

Nor, as Tom McTague notes, does it undo Theresa May’s original sin – allowing her nice line about not returning to ‘the borders of the past’ to mutate into the entirely false idea that the UK had an obligation under the Belfast Agreement to maintain the Irish border with no changes whatsoever.

But overturning that was never a realistic goal in the short to medium term, however just the cause. Any decision to reject the Windsor Framework has to factor in what alternatives are realistically achievable.

Meanwhile partisans (on both sides) are out claiming the deal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But it is probably telling that such critiques currently rest either on the Government’s Command Paper, or breezy assertions about ‘tests for who has read the small print’, rather than the actual small print.

So far, nobody has produced a smoking gun from the legal text – and there are plenty of people looking for one. Which means the PM might actually have an opportunity to, at least as far as the public are concerned, finally deliver on the central promise of the 2019 manifesto and ‘get Brexit done’.

There is a clear incentive for Brexiteers to do this. As I have argued previously, the next election was one the Conservatives really needed to win if they were going to bed down a new relationship with the European Union. By 2029, Labour would be under new management and our departure a decade in the past.

By contrast, defeat to Keir Starmer in 2024 would mean handing the keys to Number 10 to one of the senior commanders of the post-referendum Remainer rearguard action. If he inherited a sour and unstable relationship with Brussels, he would have every incentive to renegotiate our relationship – and the open sore of Northern Ireland would be the perfect excuse.

If the Tories can’t prevail at the next election (and it doesn’t look promising), successfully enacting the Windsor Framework could be the second best option for closing that window. If the major issues are settled and relations much improved, Starmer would have less incentive to reopen the debate on our post-Brexit arrangements and less political cover to indulge what is surely his natural inclination.

This obviously won’t be uppermost in the minds of Northern Irish unionists, and that’s fair enough. Those prepared to entertain the deal must judge it on the extent to which they think it will mitigate the practical barriers to commerce between Ulster and the mainland, and the threat of economic de-alignment between the Province and the rest of the UK.

But they should bear in mind that the instinct to ‘get on with our bloody lives’ among voters is very real, and not all of them will take Dolan’s principled and unionist view that the DUP’s stance is critical.

If Sunak fails now, it will probably fall to Starmer to find another solution – and Labour are far less likely than even the most uninterested Tory government to take the fundamental questions about Northern Ireland’s constitutional position in the UK seriously.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.