New PM Rishi Sunak expected to take more ‘pragmatic’ approach to NI protocol

Government sources hopeful new Conservative leader will seek to make a deal with EU to avoid trade war

The Government expects that Rishi Sunak, who will become Britain’s prime minister on Tuesday, will introduce a more “pragmatic” approach to the Northern Ireland protocol, opening the way to a possible deal with the EU which would end the stalemate on the issue.

After a decisive victory in the Conservative Party leadership election on Monday, Mr Sunak will visit Buckingham Place on Tuesday morning where King Charles III will ask him to form a government.

Born in England of Indian immigrant parents, Mr Sunak will become the first non-white person to be UK prime minister and, at 42, the youngest prime minister in over 200 years.

Senior sources in Dublin said they were optimistic that Mr Sunak’s premiership would be more “pragmatic” than those of his predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson. A common view in the Irish Government, shared by several politicians and senior officials, is that Mr Sunak will want to avoid conflict with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol as his primary focus will be stabilising sterling and reducing British borrowing costs on international markets, and repairing the UK’s battered public finances.


Sources expect that Mr Sunak will be reluctant to risk a trade war with the EU by unilaterally tearing up the protocol. Mr Sunak himself has said that he favours a negotiated solution to the dispute over the protocol.

Dublin and Brussels will be closely watching appointments to Mr Sunak’s cabinet this week for signs of any change of attitude in Downing Street. Officials in Dublin say, however, that despite a change in tone from London in recent weeks, there has yet to be a change in the substance of the British position in talks with the EU.

Irish Government sources do not expect an early breakthrough in talks on the protocol, and concede that fresh elections to the Stormont Assembly are likely to be called later this week when the deadline for the formation of the powersharing Executive passes. Northern Ireland Office minister of state Steve Baker made a fresh appeal to the DUP to allow the executive to be formed on Monday, as did Taoiseach Micheál Martin, but to little avail.

It is expected that Mr Sunak will hold a telephone call with Mr Martin over the coming days, though no arrangements have been made yet. The Taoiseach congratulated Mr Sunak on his election as Conservative leader and said he looked forward to working with him.

Mr Sunak was declared the winner of the contest to succeed Liz Truss as prime minister shortly after 2pm on Monday when the remaining rival in the party leadership race, Penny Mordaunt, failed to win the threshold of 100 endorsements from Tory MPs, which she needed to bring the contest to a second stage.

Speaking to Tory MPs after his victory, Mr Sunak said that the party needed to unite or die.

“We now need stability and unity. And I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together,” he said.

“That is the only way we will overcome the challenges we face and build a future. I pledge that I will serve you with integrity and humility, and I will work day in, day out, to deliver for the British people.”

Mr Sunak emphasised his desire to heal the divisions and factional infighting within the party. Much attention will now focus on the composition of his cabinet. It is expected he will appoint senior ministers from all sections of the party.

The first priority of Mr Sunak’s new government will be the economy. The chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt, who supported Mr Sunak, is expected to continue in the role. He will unveil an economic statement on October 31st which is expected to include stringent fiscal measures.

Labour leader Keir Starmer repeated his call for an early general election. “The people must have the chance to compare the Tories’ chaos with Labour’s plans,” he said. “We need a qeneral election now.”

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times