September 27 2023

Back from the looking glass

Back from the looking glass

Pic: Patrick Maguire
Untitled: Patrick Maguire

Is the UK finally back from its adventure through the looking glass? Watching the press conference between Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen, and reading the draft agreement that the UK and EU governments have come to over Northern Ireland would suggest so. No longer are we governed by a blank-eyed technocrat like May, a lying narcissist like Johnson, or an unhinged ideologue like Truss. In Sunak, we have someone who turns up having done their homework.

With the Windsor framework, Sunak has seemingly done the impossible for a Conservative prime minister. He has both ignored the siren call of his party’s Brexit cult, who drew May’s premiership up onto the rocks, while also not giving them anything obvious to sink their teeth into. Without a feeding frenzy over the deal, Boris Johnson has been left prowling on the sidelines, while the ERG’s resurrected star chamber mulls over trying to work out if the ‘Stormont brake’ is the wolf in sheep’s clothing they fear.

If a conflict is going to emerge over the deal, this will be where the battle-lines are drawn. In theory, the brake gives the pro-union, pro-Brexit camp what they want. Should a rule come down on high from the EU, and should Northern Ireland object to its effect on the region, Stormont has the capacity to pause its progress. What the Brexit hard-liners are likely to have a problem with, however, is the assumption that this brake will only be used in extremis. Rather than a disc brake, being regularly used to shape Northern Ireland’s relationship with the EU, the text makes clear it is an emergency stop that comes with consequences for reckless use.

This is despite the fact that a brake in an agreement like this always functions as a last resort. Concessions on both sides abound in the deal, with the EU agreeing to almost frictionless movement across the Irish-Northern Irish border, and with the UK agreeing to similarly smooth movement across the Irish Sea. Along with this, the UK will be free to set public health and food in Northern Ireland at a different rate to that of the EU in Ireland, while both retain open access to each other’s markets.

What may also prove palatable is that while the EU’s Court of Justice is still involved, it is now at a remove, with the EU Commission promising not to refer questions to the court unilaterally. This is as much of a concession that the EU was ever going to make. So long as even some EU rules have force in Ireland, the EU would need the CJEU to have some oversight. The alternative would be to risk discordant interpretations and applications of EU law, undermining the entire purpose of a single market. As commercial and trade experts have noted, this is an impressive deal on both sides. The two governments have managed to find a solution to what many thought was an intractable problem, dialling back the intensity of EU involvement in Northern Ireland to a degree that left the EU happy but still kept the Irish Sea open.

Given the mood music in parliament, the Conservative party, and the country more generally, the chances of the star chamber refusing to lend their imprimatur to the deal seem slim. Sunak has confirmed that he is not going to push ahead with their preferred option, the Northern Irish Protocol, which would have seen the UK break international law, giving them little leeway. The country is increasingly frustrated by the negotiations with the EU, and going into the next general election will kibosh whatever small chance the Conservative have at being re-elected. Couple this with the fact that Starmer has already agreed to the deal and will almost certainly pursue it if he enters Downing Street, and the pragmatic advantages of agreeing to the deal overwhelmingly outweigh whatever ideological objections the ERG may still harbour.

Should this deal make its way onto the statute books, it would be easy to assume that it lances the boil which has grown on the British body politic for so long. The realities of Brexit have infected almost every part of British politics, whether on immigration policy and refugees, on questions of trade, or on matters of defence. Rather than cooperating with our closest neighbours and ideological counterparts, politicians on both sides have sniped and briefed against each other, unwilling or unable to trust.

But Sunak’s decisions and policies beyond the EU suggest that the virus of authoritarian populism is not yet fully drained from Downing Street and the great offices of state. On personnel, Sunak is still falling far short of the ideal. The recent reshuffle saw Lee Anderson, a hard-right MP, vaulting to near the top of the Tory party’s hierarchy as vice-chairman. Since then, he has come out in favour of capital punishment (a sentiment he shares with the former home secretary, Priti Patel), and has since sympathised with the far-right extremists protesting outside some hotels giving refuge to asylum seekers.

In line with this, Sunak has done nothing to address the immigration and refugee crisis, and keeping Suella Braverman in post as Home Secretary means that there is little chance of this changing any time soon. Indeed, it may be that Sunak’s hope is to use issues like asylum to draw a clear dividing line between the Tories and Labour during the election, trying to buy the Conservatives another half decade of power through playing on people’s bigotry and fears. Judging by the recent resignation of Iain Anderson from the party, who transferred his allegiance to Labour, this is almost certainly the case. A businessman and former Tory adviser, Anderson defected after learning of Sunak’s apparent intentions to provoke a culture war, telling the press that the Conservative party “is not the party it used to be – I can’t defend it.”

‘Dear Rishi’ might have been shown to be a pragmatist, but it is this lack of integrity that should concern those who might otherwise be lulled into believing the Tory party has changed. In the case of the EU, the pragmatism was invaluable. There was no viable alternative, and a deal had to be done. In other areas, like Home Office policy, the situation is less unequivocal. Sunak may not get out of bed in the morning with the hope of persecuting asylum seekers, unlike some in his Cabinet, but his lack of integrity and fundamental values means that if push comes to shove, he’ll do it anyway. Couple this with the fact that the courts are still staying firmly in their box, and the UK’s economy might be on an upward trajectory, but its civil liberties are looking as parlous as ever. The country might no longer be basking in the wonderland of Brexit exceptionalism, but this is only good for the economy. What it means for the people is still up in the air.