Monday 20 February 2023

No way out for Sunak


Poor Rishi Sunak. All the indications are that he has gone into the negotiations with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol with the honest but completely mistaken view that he was trying to make the agreement signed by his predecessor but one work, and that the way to do that was to be reasonable and reach an agreement which would benefit all the stakeholders involved. He’s now finding out just how wrong he was; the objective of those opposing the agreement – including those who originally negotiated and agreed it – is not to make it work but to destroy it. The man responsible for the original agreement has never concealed, from the outset, the fact that he never had any intention of implementing it. Indeed, he made it so clear that it’s easy to understand his surprise at the idea that the EU ever thought he was being serious. The EU were taken completely unawares, despite all the evidence to help them, to find out that they were dealing with liars all along. 

In fairness to the Brexiteers, they have been fairly consistent in saying that what they want is full access to the EU single market without following any of the rules which member states have to follow, on the basis that this would give UK companies a competitive advantage. They’re right – it would indeed do that. Which is why no-one other than the English exceptionalists behind Brexit (and their DUP allies) ever thought for one moment that the EU would concede such an arrangement. In essence, it’s what those in favour of a ‘pure’ form of free trade have always wanted – trade with no tariffs, no border controls and no rules. And they genuinely seem to be so divorced from reality that they actually believed that they could bludgeon the EU into giving them such a deal.

We don’t yet know the detail of what Sunak has or has not agreed, although it would be surprising if it was far away from what has been widely reported in the press. And from that reporting, it looks like it’s little different from what could have been achieved in the original negotiation had the UK side been willing to take the time to discuss and agree rather than make threats and then sign up in haste (to 'get Brexit done') to something that they were never going to implement. It’s unlikely, though, that anything that is agreed will be acceptable to the DUP or the Tory extremists if it leaves any trace of EU laws or rules in Northern Ireland, or any hint of controls on the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the UK. It's equally unlikely that the EU will agree to any deal which does not uphold both those things. And that would lead us, inexorably, to the establishment of border controls on the island of Ireland. The Brexiteers would say that isn’t what they want (although the DUP would probably be delighted). They might even be telling the truth on that, but only because they’ve always believed two things:

·        Firstly (even if few of them have said it out loud), that the Republic of Ireland should know its place and follow the UK out of the EU, preferably re-joining the UK and swearing loyalty to the English monarchy at the same time. Their attitude towards Ireland is a bit like that of Putin towards Ukraine – it’s not a proper country and has no real right to a separate existence.

·        Secondly, that the UK’s departure would be the beginning of the end for the EU, which is still the end-game for many of them.

Where that leaves Sunak and his renegotiation is a big question. There is some doubt about whether he actually needs to put his deal to Parliament at all. Under the UK’s arcane system of semi-democracy, it arguably falls under the royal prerogative, meaning that ministers can just sign it and implement it. It would make him look frightened and weak, but he might prefer that to the alternative scenario where he puts it to parliament and it gets passed by opposition votes with a huge number of Tories voting against it. Rocks and hard places both leave him weakened, with the blond-headed shark circling maliciously. And both still leave the Conservative Party unmanageable and drifting as it attempts to reconcile the two irreconcilably opposing views on Europe which have destroyed so many of its leaders over the past three decades. In any functioning democracy, these two views would be represented by two different parties, but an outdated electoral system which polarises elections between two parties means that both try to manage differences within a broad church. Traditionally, that’s been more of a problem for Labour than the Tories, but it increasingly looks as if it might turn out to be terminal for the Tories. The coming implosion is almost too kind a way out.

1 comment:

dafis said...

Brit UK politics is resisting the natural impulse to tear apart and re group around new foci. Maybe that's because there are so many competing foci and many of their prime advocates are narrow single issue punters or at best can only muster interest in a handful of issues.

A guy called Steve Richards wrote a contentious book a few years ago where he applauded the "insiders" in politics - people who operated within what we might perceive as conventional parties. He observed that "outsiders" who challenged the status quo would end up morphing into "insiders" if ever they gained power, or would fade away once their single issue was dealt with in some fashion e.g Farage. The present situation within the Tory government and party, along with schisms within the SNP and Scottish politics suggest that Richards' analysis may not prove valid for much longer. Disruptive personalities trigger instability and there is by no means any guarantee that the status quo ante will be restored after the turbulence is over. In the case of UK things in Westminster will most likely revert to "normal" but led by a Starmer coalition of some kind. Shame that Ms Sturgeon won't be around to dig him regularly in the ribs. Or maybe now she is free from the job in Holyrood she could seek a seat for the next UK GE. That should set the cat among the pigeons !