Following the disastrous Liz Truss interlude in Downing Street, Rishi Sunak was championed by supporters as the pragmatic antidote to a period of ideological extremism. As progress is finally made in resolving differences with Brussels over post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade arrangements, Mr Sunak’s ability to justify that reputation for sober realism is about to be put to a defining test.
Monday’s joint statement on the Northern Ireland protocol – the second in the space of a week – by the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and the EU’s chief negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, confirmed the new desire to engage on the British side. Though “significant” differences remain, it is clear that minds are being focused ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement in April, and a possible visit by Joe Biden.
Incremental progress on a series of east-west trade issues – from data-sharing to the border posts monitoring goods travelling across the Irish Sea – is building confidence and trust. And in Mr Sunak, Brussels believes it finally has an interlocutor who wants to cut a deal rather than indulge in knockabout theatre to gratify a domestic audience. Goodwill has been strengthened by the effective pausing of Boris Johnson’s disreputable Northern Ireland protocol bill, which would allow Britain to unilaterally renege on the legally binding commitments it made in 2020.
So far, so positive. But eye-wateringly complex negotiations about datasets and trusted trader schemes can only do so much of the work. The protocol created an effective border in the Irish Sea to avoid a hard one on the island of Ireland. Introduced to protect the integrity of the EU single market, the business impact of that barrier can be mitigated through technical solutions to minimise checks and paperwork. This has already happened in relation to medicine, for example. But the consequences of the double status of Northern Ireland – in the United Kingdom but also part of the EU’s economic orbit – cannot be wished away. Nor, therefore, can the status of European law and a role for the European court of justice – currently the ultimate authority in the case of a trade dispute.
The Democratic Unionist party and the Brexit purists of the Conservative backbench European Research Group (ERG) refuse to recognise this reality. The DUP steadfastly opposes all post-Brexit checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland. The ERG continues to fetishise the issue of sovereignty; last week, its deputy chairman, David Jones, reiterated its position that European law must be disapplied in Northern Ireland.
Aggressive Brexit maximalism of this kind, enforced by a minority of the Conservative party with disproportionate influence, has damaged Britain economically and reputationally for too long. If, as seems to be the case, Mr Sunak wishes to compromise with Brussels and seek a better, wider relationship, he will need to confront the backbench ideologues and show hitherto well-concealed leadership qualities.
Already treated with suspicion by the ultras in his party, the prime minister would thereby be taking a big personal gamble. But he would undoubtedly be acting in the national interest. The alternative – pursuing the Northern Ireland protocol bill and risking a trade war with the EU – would be a reckless folly to compare with the Truss/Kwarteng economic experiment. Even if it takes Labour party support to make it happen, Mr Sunak should make sure that a post-Brexit government, for once, takes the pragmatic course.