Later today, Rishi Sunak will, metaphorically, open his prime ministerial red box and extract from it a perfectly solved Rubik’s cube, each of its brightly coloured faces a uniform shade, tidy and whole.
Sunak had some help from his civil servants, and from the equally diligent President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen and her staff. But he should be proud of his achievement. For that is effectively what he has done with the Northern Ireland Protocol – solved a conundrum where most of us would gladly have given up after a few twists, and left it to pursue other more promising diversions.
Though far from his previous experience in finance and the economy, the challenges of Northern Ireland’s governance suit Sunak’s logical, methodical, inquisitive approach, attention to detail, natural sensitivity and good manners.
He may be someone who heads a party and government obviously deeply flawed in many ways, but on this issue at least he has followed the example of another beleaguered predecessor, John Major, and proved his critics wrong by working hard, taking risks and helping make peace in Ireland. Quiet, hard work, a willingness to compromise and to put the cause of peace first aren’t the most showy of virtues, but in the delicate territory of Ireland they are indispensable.
Ah, but who was it who left the Rubik’s Cube all messy and embarrassingly unsolved, tossed to one side when it bored him? Who, despite the mixed-up colours and jagged edges, declared the riddle of the Northern Ireland Protocol “done” and hailed it as a “fantastic” deal, “oven ready”? Who liked us to think he had “got Brexit done”, when he knew full well that he hadn’t done any such thing, and hoped the defects would only emerge much later, when the general election he hoped to win was long since over?
We know that Boris Johnson couldn’t be bothered even to read the thing, and, frankly, the Northern Ireland Protocol was never going to be solved while he was in charge. It never seemed to bother him that much. It was an irritation, and an opportunity to bluster and posture; but he wasn’t much interested in actually sorting it out.
Johnson might well have concluded it was insoluble, and one of those problems that goes away the longer it’s ignored. He was wrong, it turns out. So it must be doubly galling for Johnson now to see the man he made chancellor and who he judges then betrayed him, the “snake” Sunak, succeed so well where he failed. Johnson, an enormously vain individual, is seething. As ever, he won’t give way with sincere good grace. But the deal is done, it’s as good as it gets, and the Tory party should be in no mood to oust the man who brought it back from Brussels.
It’s true that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that Johnson introduced, dangerously, may have added to the pressure on the negotiators on both sides, as did the Democratic Unionists’ boycott of power-sharing. But that pressure in itself wasn’t doing anything to solve things, and only soured relations further, destroying trust in the process. Besides, the NIP Bill was always an empty threat, inevitably open to legal challenge, as Dominic Raab has now admitted, and would have plunged the UK into a catastrophic “no deal” Brexit, and an economic slump. Even Liz Truss saw the NIP Bill had to be “paused” before it inflicted more damage.
Enough of that. New, practical, logically and legally secure arrangements were needed, and someone had to persuade the EU to adapt the way the Protocol was being implemented. Sunak was well suited to the task. It meant talking, engaging, winning the argument and developing a rapport with European leaders.
Under Johnson and Liz Truss there were no negotiations, only threats and insults, and the EU was threatening legal action over the Bill, selective tariffs on UK exports as retaliation for breach of an international binding treaty, excluding the UK from the Horizon research programmes, and much else. We couldn’t go on like that.
With trust restored and the NIP deal done, all sorts of new areas for fruitful cooperation with the EU open up. This is not selling the UK or Northern Ireland down the river. It is merely making the best of what Brexit actually means. So British and EU officials can sit down and talk about the Horizon funding for UK universities – with science being the key to essential future economic growth.
Then there’s the channel migrant crisis, another round of talks on the fishing quotas, and of course defence, security and dealing with Russia and China. With such progress on the NIP and peace, the White House will also be well pleased, and a visit from President Biden to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement this Easter is more likely.
Even when Margaret Thatcher was a proudly unionist prime minister it was the US that has been a steady and reliable friend of peace in Ireland, confidentially nudging the governments in Ireland and Britain to make the compromises needed to make the historic moves, from the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998, to the potential breakthroughs this week.
For now, though, Sunak deserves the thanks of his party and its allies in the media, yet the silence is deafening. In the unlikely event that Johnson had sat down and solved this puzzle they would be cheering him on as some sort of political genius. Instead, the gratitude displayed towards Sunak is grudging and conditional.
It is ironic that so many of the people who praised and voted for Johnson’s obviously inadequate deal, one which betrayed the DUP and the ERG, are now so curmudgeonly when that same deal is vastly improved, so keen to forensically examine the “legal text” and so unwilling to trust Sunak. Yet they now have “less EU” in Northern Ireland than they had before – but, of course, it’s never enough.
Figures such as Mark Francois want EU law “expunged” from the province. For the original “Spartans”, and opportunists such as Johnson, nothing Sunak does can ever be enough; but it is more likely now that the sheer scale of Sunak’s achievement will persuade other Eurosceptics to support him. His critics can find plenty to find fault with, but they should try solving Sunak’s Cube.