The baleful emergence of the ghosts of Brexit past, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, in an effort to derail the Northern Ireland protocol settlement poses a career-defining challenge for prime minister Rishi Sunak and also for the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Jeffrey Donaldson.
Both men would do well to ponder the uncharacteristically blunt assessment from Labour leader Keir Starmer who said in a podcast interview earlier this week: “Is there anybody who’s had any relationship with Johnson – you know, in any sense of the word – who hasn’t ended up in the gutter?”
The DUP ended up in the political gutter in 2019 when its MPs placed their faith in Johnson and helped him to bring down Theresa May only to discover that he was prepared to sell them out and agree to an economic border in the Irish Sea, something May had refused to do.
Whatever decision Donaldson comes to about the Sunak deal, he should ignore Johnson and the rump of the European Research Group (ERG), who betrayed his party once and will do so again at the drop of a hat. Johnson’s obvious objective is to damage Sunak and wreck the prospects of a good working relationship between the UK and the EU in the hope that the Conservative Party will turn back to him as its saviour before the next UK election.
Raoul Ruparel, former adviser to Theresa May on Europe, pointed out that the current situation has echoes of 2019, with the ERG using the DUP as cover to pursue their own agenda. “But we know from Boris negotiation that they are willing to agree to something which DUP doesn’t support. JRM [Jacob Rees-Mogg] in particular was part of team Boris that totally turned on what the DUP wanted in late 2019.”
Donaldson has a big decision to make about whether any deal with the EU meets the seven tests he set out last year to make the protocol acceptable. As with most political decisions, it will depend on whether he wants to look at the glass as half full or half empty.
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If he decides to go with the deal as the essential step towards the restoration of powersharing at Stormont, he will undoubtedly be attacked by hardline unionist voices within his party and outside it. His best tactic would be to sell the arrangement unapologetically as a significant achievement which would never have happened had he not set out his seven tests in the first place.
As well as bringing stability to Northern Ireland, the deal presents an opportunity for Donaldson to win influence with Sunak and mainstream Conservatives. It would also win him friends in the Labour Party, which is almost certain to win the next election. It would show Starmer that the DUP leader is a politician of substance who can be relied on to make rational decisions that are in the best interests of the people he represents.
One of the significant changes since the days when Johnson and Rees-Mogg conspired to bring down May is that two key individuals in the ERG during that period are now central to selling the Sunak deal. Former chairman of the ERG Chris Heaton Harris is now the Northern Secretary and strenuously attempting to persuade the DUP to sign up to the deal, while Steve Baker is minister of state for Northern Ireland.
If the deal on the protocol represents a defining moment for Donaldson’s leadership, the same is true of Sunak. In all likelihood he will have just two years in Downing Street but he has the opportunity to go down as the prime minister who started to rebuild the UK’s reputation in the world or one who caved in to the “malcontents and wreckers” in his party who appear ready to sacrifice their country’s interests on the altar of anti EU-ideology.
He certainly faces a massive challenge to get his fractious party behind him, and given the way it has devoured its last four leaders there is an obvious risk that he will suffered the same fate. On the other hand Conservative MPs will have to take into account the self-destructive impact the downfall of yet another leader will have on their own prospects of re-election.
Sunak’s position has been strengthened by the decision of Nicola Sturgeon to quit politics. The decision represents a massive setback for the cause of Scottish independence and means the union that Brexit jeopardised appears safe for the foreseeable future. An agreement that restored the institutions in the North would further the process of cementing the UK for at least a generation and put talk of a Border poll to bed for some time.
On the wider world stage, an agreement with the EU would represent a move back to co-operation with the UK’s neighbours at a critically important time as Putin’s war against Ukraine enters its second year. Western democracies need to stand together against Russian tyranny and a deal on the protocol would be an important stepping stone. Sunak clearly wants to do it but he will need courage and political skill to pull it off.