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Sunak may not be strong enough to force through a deal on protocol

UK prime minister will have to face down Tory Eurosceptics sooner or later or they will destroy him on the altar of Brexit

There was quite a flurry across the Brexit quadrangle of Brussels-London-Dublin-Belfast this week when reports emerged that a deal had been done between the British government and the European Commission on the Northern Ireland protocol.

“Incorrect” and “premature” were among the more polite responses from Irish Government and Brussels officials. Other descriptions were earthier; the enthusiastic (and frequently entertaining, to my ears anyway) profanity with which much of the private discourses of our politics are conducted would surprise you. But even the more polite British government sources were curtly dismissive.

Still, all sides expect a deal to be done in the coming weeks. There has clearly been substantial progress in negotiations and the participants are keen for a deal. There is a view in both Brussels and London that the DUP will have to accept – later if not sooner – any deal that the British government makes. The protocol problems will be solved, the institutions will be up and running, there’ll be a 25th birthday party for the Belfast Agreement and the European Union, the UK and Ireland can get on with relations that are more rational, productive and civilised.

I think there may be an optimism bias in all of this; you can’t always get what you want. It underestimates the DUP’s willingness to dig in, and hardline unionism’s comfort with being outside the gates howling about betrayal. It doesn’t take account of the EU’s option to simply wait out the Conservative government in the expectation that a more reasonable administration will succeed it. And it may overestimate UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s power to force a deal through his own party.


The state of that party right now is a thing to behold. The Tory right, which once prided itself on fidelity to the tenets of Thatcherism, is increasingly a cacophony of dimwits. Where Thatcher (painfully) fixed the public finances and tamed inflation before she cut taxes, these people now greet every economic reverse with a demand for an immediate dose of tax cuts. Their collective memory does not extend as far back as last September when Liz Truss blew up her premiership and nearly sank the currency with a programme of... er, unfunded tax cuts.

Where Thatcher was instrumental in setting up the single market and fought her sovereigntist battles from inside the EU, the European Research Group (and what research does it do, you might ask) demands an even harder Brexit that the one that they designed three years ago. Be ready to rip up the protocol, Lord David Frost advised Sunak this week. It will strengthen your hand in the negotiations. Good man, Frostie. That’s the sort of thing that has proved so successful in negotiations with the EU so far. Show those foreign johnnies a thing or two.

(Let us pass over the fact that was the same Frost who negotiated the protocol, back in the day, when Brexit meant Brexit and Her Majesty’s Government was about the business of getting it done. Ah, innocent days.)

It might be necessary to put manners on the House of Lords, too, you know. ERG deputy chairman David Jones told the House of Commons this week that if the Lords obstructed the Protocol Bill (the Trussite legislation which enables the British government to set aside the protocol) then the Commons should consider legislating to abolish the House of Lords altogether. This is proper alternative reality stuff.

Sunak is going to have to face down these people sooner or later or they will destroy him on the altar of Brexit. My guess is he would like to do it sooner – but there is no guarantee he is strong enough. Maybe we’re about to find out.

The state of Sunak’s party is reflected in the state of his country. This week, the International Monetary Fund reported that the British economy would be the only major economy to contract this year; even the Russian economy is faring better. The extent of British economic problems is not fully appreciated here yet; but it will be. It is a no-to-low growth, low-wage economy; its structural problems are worse than the 1970s. “The British economy,” wrote the economist Tim Harford recently, “is in a generation-long slough of despond, a slow-burning economic catastrophe.”

Productivity has not looked so unhealthy since the late 1700s. The current stagnation, the historian Adam Tooze observed, “is unlike anything in the last quarter millennium. The prospect of future damage from Brexit only renders the outlook more bleak.” This week, the latest in a series of public-sector strikes brought the country to a standstill. In short, the UK is in a very, very bad way.

Against this background of economic and political weakness, even the DUP must be able to see the writing on the wall. The arguments for the protocol are both economic and political. In fact, they come together: with its unique arrangement of giving the North a foot in both the EU market and the UK one, and therefore a decent chance to make Northern Ireland more prosperous, the protocol could help the DUP preserve the union, not undermine it. After all, the North is already treated differently politically; are economic arrangements that much of a stretch?

A protocol that works, fuelling economic growth in Northern Ireland, bolsters the argument in favour of the status quo. Looked at another way, the economic interests of the North would be damaged by exiting either the EU or the UK markets.

But this requires a leap of imagination that seems to be beyond many unionists; is it really beyond Jeffrey Donaldson? The DUP leader may be approaching a defining test of his leadership. Whatever he does, there will be implications not just for his party but for unionism itself.