Voices: ‘Dear Rishi’: Did you swoon too when Sunak signed the Brexit deal?
Here it was then, history, in all its ragged glory. Write it down in your diary, type it up in your Notes app, because the grandkids are going to want to know exactly where you were when Rishi Sunak announced brand new customs processes for the export of phytosanitary goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
“Where were you?” they’ll ask. “Where were you when the text of the Northern Ireland protocol was amended to make provision for separate green lanes and red lanes for low- and high-risk products?”
Well I was in the room where it happened, kids: the Guildhall in Windsor. Before today, its claim to fame was merely that it had hosted the marriages of Charles and Camilla, and Elton John and David Furnish (which, to be clear, were two separate occasions many years apart, not like the Ian Beale/Barry Evans and Janine Butcher EastEnders double header).
I was there when European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen looked lovingly over from her podium and into the eyes of the man she called “dear Rishi”. They were there to announce history together.
We should, of course, give history its proper name. The replacement for the Northern Ireland protocol is now known as the Windsor Framework. It is known as this because they announced it in a room in Windsor that is available for private hire, directly above a museum.
To weigh it down with grand historical significance, the government also instructed the King to hold a separate, unrelated meeting with Ms Von der Leyen, which Buckingham Palace had to make very clear was only happening because the government had told His Majesty he had to do it, and had absolutely nothing to do with Brexit, which they probably wouldn’t even discuss, despite it being the entire reason Ms Von der Leyen was here. So that’s all perfectly fine then.
The Windsor Framework does three things, but all to the same end: it scrapes the final, rancid scraps of Boris Johnson’s “oven ready deal” into the dustbin of history.
Rishi Sunak made great fanfare of announcing that the new deal would mean that “the same food will be available on supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland as the rest of the UK”. That was his big achievement. He made sure his counterpart said the words, too.
You could almost – almost – hear the cheers on the streets of Belfast, as its citizens realised that they too would now have access to the exact same complete lack of basic foodstuffs as the rest of the country. What a triumph.
British bulbs can now flood back to garden centres, from Ballymena to Fermanagh. There will also be a “Stormont brake”, which will allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to spend a long time saying no to various EU regulations before ultimately saying yes to them. (This was wrongly reported in many outlets as a “Stormont break”, which is an easy mistake to make, on the basis that Stormont has itself been on a break for several years.)
But it is, nonetheless, no small achievement. The protocol has been renegotiated, the thing that the EU said it could never possibly do. It’s not entirely clear how “dear Rishi” made it happen when none of his predecessors could. His main advantage over Boris Johnson is that he is not required to deny reality.
Johnson campaigned in 2019 on a promise never to construct a customs border in the Irish Sea, and then did exactly that. Johnson could not have countenanced a “green lane” and a “red lane.” The green lane would have confirmed the existence of the red one. Instead he had to have just one red lane, and then pretend it wasn’t there.
Sunak, self-evidently, is trying to style himself as some kind of moderate, humble statesperson. He did his very best to weigh his very limited gravity down upon the moment, and to talk of “this family of nations, this United Kingdom” as though he were the saviour of it. Seven years ago, almost 17 million people voted to remain in the European Union, and every single one of them cares a lot more about what happens to the United Kingdom than they care about Rishi Sunak.
But mainly, Sunak has revealed perhaps more than he intended to about quite what he expects to achieve as prime minister, in slathering this moment with as much history as he could manage. If you’re browbeating His Majesty into making a big deal out of your brand new customs green lane, it’s possible you’re admitting that you don’t expect to be remembered for very much at all.