Ten years have passed since a fresh-faced British prime minister David Cameron promised a referendum on Brexit, a gamble that sowed the seeds of his political destruction. Now, four prime ministers later, Rishi Sunak is taking the biggest wager of his political career: trying to clear up the mess.
Sunak is already in a precarious position: the Conservatives trail the Labour opposition by about 20 points in the polls, his party is fractious, his two predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, are agitating in the wings, and a general election must be called by the end of next year.
The prime minister is embarking up a narrow path with steep drops on either side: in the coming days he hopes to strike an agreement with Brussels to fix the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, the most bitterly contested part of Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal.
The route is littered with political skeletons; Theresa May, another former Tory leader, lost her job trying to resolve the issue of Northern Ireland’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit, covering complex questions of customs controls and EU law. “It gives me cold sweats just thinking about it,” says one veteran Tory, recalling previous negotiations to try to settle the question.
Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs banker, regards himself as “a problem solver”, according to aides, but this is not like any other political problem. It touches on issues of sovereignty and identity and the raw passions that were unleashed by Cameron’s 2016 EU referendum.
The details of the protocol dispute can seem arcane: debates about checks on British sausages, VAT rules or the role of judges in Luxembourg in a small corner of the UK are a turn-off for most voters, if they give them any thought at all. “Do you know how many letters we get each week about the Northern Ireland protocol?” asks one Tory MP. “None.”
So why is Sunak doing this? Damian Green, May’s de facto deputy prime minister, has a simple answer: “He thinks it’s the right thing to do.” Perhaps, but Sunak has also made a political calculation that there are big gains to be had in acting now, rather than leaving the Brexit row to fester until next year’s election.
But much is at risk; not just Sunak’s own job and his party’s control of government, but also Northern Ireland’s security and political future, and the UK’s diplomatic and economic relations with Europe and the US. “I wouldn’t have touched it,” a former Tory cabinet minister says. “It’s crazy.”
There are considerable upsides of delivering a deal. “Quite a few problems would melt away,” says Green. “It wouldn’t just be good for Northern Ireland but it would also reset the relationship with Europe and America.”
Sunak’s outline deal with Brussels would scrap some of the bureaucracy that has hit trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a region of the UK which remains inside the EU’s single market for goods, and reduce the role of EU law.
He hopes this will be enough to placate politicians in the Democratic Unionist party. They hate the protocol, which puts a trade border in the Irish Sea to avoid border checks on the island of Ireland, and are refusing to take part in the region’s elected assembly at Stormont in protest. Sunak hopes a deal to improve its functioning could win over the DUP and restore self-government in Northern Ireland.
But the gains of a breakthrough would stretch way beyond Northern Ireland. The government’s constant attempts to unpick the protocol — including Johnson who, as prime minister, brought forward a bill in parliament last year to unilaterally rewrite the bill he agreed — have put relations with the EU in the deep freeze. The bill is on hold.
“If we pressed ahead with the legislation there’s a not insubstantial risk of a trade war with the EU,” says one of Sunak’s cabinet colleagues. Given that Brexit has played a part in hobbling Britain’s growth prospects and the country teeters on the edge of a recession, that would be unwelcome, to say the least.
Brussels has indicated that if Sunak agrees a deal and drops Johnson’s Northern Ireland protocol bill — described by one EU official as “a loaded gun on the table” — the UK would be instantly rewarded by being readmitted to the €95bn Horizon Europe science collaboration scheme, prized by British universities and scientists.
Green says that “warm winds would blow” and create better conditions for European co-operation. The symbolism of European powers burying the Brexit hatchet around the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is seen as important in London and Brussels.
Meanwhile, Sunak would hope to get more help from Emmanuel Macron, the French president, in tackling the politically charged issue of “small boats” carrying migrants to Britain across the English Channel. Sunak and Macron are due to meet in Paris next month.
Then there is the prospect of better relations with Joe Biden, the US president, who speaks with pride of his Irish heritage. Sunak hopes Biden will attend events in Belfast this year to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of conflict in the region.
Biden has also been invited on a state visit to London at the same time. With King Charles’s coronation taking place in early May, Sunak sees a chance for Britain, reconciled with its allies, to put on a good show to the world.
Lord William Hague, a former Tory leader, this week pointed out that Johnson won the 2019 election promising to “Get Brexit Done”. Failing to resolve the Northern Ireland row would be a “very damaging” reminder at the next election that this government had not got Brexit “done” after all.
So much for the rewards of a deal. Weighing heavily on the other side of the ledger is the very real risk that a compromise with Brussels winds up Tory Eurosceptics, fails to end the political impasse in Northern Ireland and leaves Sunak on the ropes with perilous local elections in early May only weeks away.
Even though Sunak has extracted compromises from Brussels that eluded his predecessors, his secretive handling of the protocol negotiations, holding back details of an outline deal from the DUP and Tory MPs until the last minute, has been heavily criticised.
“This is very, very bad politics,” says Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative. “He made a deal in secret, convinced himself it could fly. He’s placed an awful lot of his credibility on the line.”
Having presented the outline of a deal to the DUP and Tory MPs over the past 10 days, Sunak has inevitably faced new demands from both groups, forcing him to delay his proposed announcement of the agreement this week and to go back to Brussels seeking more concessions.
Sunak is in a no-win situation, according to veterans of May’s negotiation with Brussels. “If you get the DUP and Tory MPs involved from the start, they demand things that can’t be negotiated,” one says. “If you present them with a deal at the end, they claim they are being bounced.”
The prime minister could decide to abandon his deal at the last minute, but cabinet colleagues believe Sunak will push ahead, even if it is unclear whether the DUP will return to Stormont and if Tory Eurosceptics will accept it.
Retreat now would fuel claims by Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, that Sunak is weak and beholden to “the malcontents, the reckless, the wreckers” in his own party.
Sunak’s allies claim that out of 355 Tory MPs, almost 300 want to get the protocol row sorted, while a further 30 or so had serious concerns but could be persuaded to back a deal, especially if it had DUP support. They say that would leave about 30 MPs who may cause Sunak trouble.
Some ministers point out that a joint declaration with Brussels on how to better implement the protocol — reducing border checks and limiting the role of the European Court of Justice — would not even require a formal vote in the House of Commons.
However, Sunak’s critics believe that up to 100 Tory MPs would be unhappy with a deal that failed to satisfy the DUP, adding to a wider sense of unease in a party where some MPs have already resigned themselves to electoral defeat.
“It’s the same MPs who go on about the protocol who want us to cut taxes immediately and talk about the small boats,” admits one minister. Stir in backers of Johnson and a small band of “Trussites” and the Northern Ireland issue adds to a volatile political mix of characters and grievances which could ignite at any point.
The stakes are high. The shooting on Wednesday night of a senior police officer in Omagh in Northern Ireland by suspected dissident republicans was a reminder that violence lies close to the surface in the region.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a Tory Eurosceptic and former party leader, says that finding a deal that satisfies both communities in the region is vital and charges that some in Sunak’s circle do not fully grasp the historical context. “Violence and a return of the Troubles is just a sheet of paper away from re-emerging,” he says.
Few in Northern Ireland believe it will plunge back into full-scale conflict but many acknowledge instability breeds volatility. There is no evidence that the shooting was in any way motivated by the protocol row.
The DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has welcomed “progress” on resolving some of the issues on the protocol but has made it clear more is needed if he is to take his party back to Stormont.
Donaldson will not accept or reject any deal immediately but will take it back to the 11 other party officers and the party executive. DUP insiders insist that while the party leader is considered a moderate, there is broad agreement at the top of the party on issues such as the role of EU law.
“I don’t think Jeffrey is a million miles from whoever the hardest line is on this,” says one former party special adviser. “It’s hard to see the DUP ready to compromise.” It is common to hear MPs at Westminster utter the DUP’s traditional response to such compromises in a cod Ulster accent: “No.”
Sunak’s closest allies believe he will in the coming days decide to roll the dice, present the deal he has struck with Brussels, hope the DUP accepts it, and face down some in his party if necessary.
EU diplomats hopes he gets on with it. One says: “I’m worried that the longer he waits, the more difficult it becomes and the more time his opponents have to act. I hope he uses the momentum he has.”
Johnson is already calling for Sunak to pass the law he drafted to unilaterally scrap the protocol. “It is a very good bill, it fixes all the problems,” he said this week. If Sunak’s retreats from his efforts to fix the protocol, Tory MPs will urge him to press ahead with the bill and provoke another full-scale confrontation with Brussels.
Maroš Šefčovič, European Commission vice-president leading the talks from the EU side, remains hopeful: “We clearly see the finishing line,” he said. Crossing it would represent a victory of sorts for Sunak, but his domestic problems at Westminster might only just be beginning.
Data visualisation by Keith Fray