Sanity prevailed in the Conservative Party with the election of Rishi Sunak as the new prime minister in place of Liz Truss. The big question is whether a similar outbreak of common sense will manifest itself on the arguably more fundamental issue of the UK’s relations with the EU.
It would make sense for Sunak to try to defuse the continuing row over the Northern Ireland Protocol as the first step in a reset of UK-EU relations. In his phone conversation with Micheál Martin on Wednesday, the new prime minister reiterated that his preference is for a negotiated outcome to the long-running stand-off on the Northern Ireland protocol.
The problem is that the internal dynamics of the Conservative Party are pushing him in the opposite direction and into a continuation of the row over the Protocol which has poisoned EU/UK relations since Johnson “got Brexit done”.
The negative impact of Brexit is widely perceived outside the UK but a veil has been drawn over it in British politics
The secret that dare not speak its name in British politics is the devastating impact that Brexit has had on the country. Former governor of the Bank of Bank of England Mark Carney pointed out recently that before the Brexit referendum the UK economy was 90 per cent the size of the German economy. Now it has contracted to 70 per cent of the German economy and is facing difficult times.
The negative impact of Brexit is widely perceived outside the UK but a veil has been drawn over it in British politics. Canadian conservative commentator David Frum put his finger on it last week. “The problem with the UK Tory party is not the personal defects of the captain. The problem is that you’re not eligible for the captaincy unless you agree it was a brilliant idea to scupper the ship in 2016 – and can convincingly act baffled why it has been sinking ever since.”
Sunak took the Brexiteer side in the Tory civil war during the 2016 referendum. His cabinet appointments reflected a concern to keep that wing of the party sweet, with the appointment of anti-EU hardliners such as Dominic Raab and Suella Braverman to key positions.
Keir Starmer recently issued a major statement of Labour policy on Europe, declaring opposition to any attempt to rejoin the EU single market or customs union, never mind the EU itself
There is no indication that the widely expected change of government in the UK after the next election will bring about any change in the mood. Keir Starmer as the Labour Party Brexit spokesman in the 2016 to 2019 period took a more hardline stance than Jeremy Corbyn in scuppering Theresa May’s efforts to get a relatively soft Brexit deal through the House of Commons.
As party leader, he recently issued a major statement of Labour policy on Europe, declaring opposition to any attempt to rejoin the EU single market or customs union, never mind the EU itself. Instead, in a pledge that could have come from the mouth of the most right-wing of Conservatives, he promised to “make Brexit work”.
Given that there is no domestic political pressure on Sunak to adopt a more conciliatory policy towards the EU, any change in direction will stem from a rational assessment of what is in his country’s best interests.
There are some grounds for hope on this front. Earlier this year when Boris Johnson bowed to pressure from Liz Truss and the hardline Brexiteers and agreed the bill setting aside the protocol, Sunak and Michael Gove were reported to have argued strongly in cabinet against the move.
During the leadership contest with Truss, Sunak adopted some of the tougher anti-EU rhetoric clearly designed to appeal to the Tory membership, but now that he has the responsibility of office and is facing into a deep economic crisis the case for a more moderate approach should appeal to his rational instincts.
Both the EU and the UK have emphasised in recent days that they are focused on compromise in the technical talks on the operation of the protocol that are currently under way. The problem is that compromise will be hard to find when the two sides are so far apart on some of the technical trade issues, never mind the role the European Court of Justice in arbitrating on any future disputes.
The last thing the UK economy needs now is a trade war with the EU, and Sunak and his chancellor Jeremy Hunt will be keenly aware of that
In the short term, neither side has an incentive to push things to the limit but the negotiation cannot go on forever. Ultimately, it will end in a fudge that everybody can claim as a victory, or a complete breakdown that will lead to the setting aside of the Protocol by the British government in line with the legislation currently wending its way through the House of Lords.
The last thing the UK economy needs now is a trade war with the EU, and Sunak and his chancellor Jeremy Hunt will be keenly aware of that. However, a compromise on the protocol could spark another and even deeper split in the Conservative Party, whose MPs will inevitably be feeling the pressure of public odium over unpopular decisions in the months ahead.
Sunak faces the same dilemma that Theresa May wrestled with for three years: how to pursue the national interest of the UK against the instincts of the Conservative Party’s fundamentalist wing. The effort to reconcile those forces ultimately cost May her job. Sunak will need to show courage and real political skill to avoid the same fate.