Rishi Sunak played a political blinder over the past week selling the Windsor framework with passion and verve to a potentially dubious Conservative Party and resetting his country’s relations with the European Union and Ireland in the process.
Having done what his three predecessors failed to do by getting Brexit “done” after seven years of often acrimonious negotiations with the EU he is hardly likely to allow the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to spoil the party, particularly one that opens the door to a coveted trade deal with the United States.
Whether the DUP accepts, rejects or kicks to touch, the Windsor framework is here to stay. A positive new phase in the relationship between the EU and the UK is vital in light of the threat to the western democracy posed by Vladimir Putin and is far too important to be allowed to founder because of the intransigence of a small number of politicians in Northern Ireland.
The really impressive aspect of Sunak’s performance was the way he went about convincing his party and the wider public of the merits of his deal. He took the trouble to travel to Northern Ireland twice in a few days, the first time to brief the DUP and the second time to persuade a cross-section of voters that the framework was in their interests.
Naming the updated protocol deal the Windsor framework was a public relations masterstroke. Having the meeting between Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen take place in Windsor under a photograph of King George V, who played a critical role in bringing the Irish War of Independence to a close in 1921, was another deft touch.
Johnson made a determined effort to throw a spanner in the works but he backed off when it became clear that Sunak had mobilised almost the entire Conservative Party and most of the Tory press to his side
The fact that von der Leyen then went on to have tea with King Charles was certainly symbolic despite official claims that it had nothing to do with the Brexit process. The king has made no secret of his affection for both parts of Ireland and the meeting with the European Commission president would not have taken place unless he wanted it to happen.
Of course all of the highly orchestrated events of the past week were the result of months of tedious negotiations involving UK and EU officials and would not have come to a successful conclusion without the commitment of commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic. He threw himself wholeheartedly into finding solutions to the problems created for the people of Northern Ireland by the initial interpretation of the protocol.
The EU can sometimes be faulted for an overly legalistic approach but Ireland was lucky that Sefcovic, coming from a small country like Slovakia, appreciated the need to find solutions rather than sticking rigidly to the terms of the deal agreed by Boris Johnson back in 2019.
He struck up a trusting relationship with British foreign secretary James Cleverly, and they were helped by having the assistance of skilled and experienced officials led by Stephanie Riso on EU side and Tim Barrow for the UK. Both had participated at a senior level in the earlier Brexit negotiations and were on top of the complicated issues at the heart of the protocol.
Contrasting Sunak’s performance with the dull, unimaginative approach of Keir Starmer, might there be a chance he could pull off a political miracle akin to that achieved by John Major in 1992?
While there was a long list of technical issues that had to be sorted out in the talks, a solution ultimately depended on the personal chemistry between the leading players. This is where the arrival of Sunak in Downing Street was so vital. His decision to attend the British-Irish Council meeting in Blackpool with taoiseach Micheál Martin in November signalled a positive new approach to relations between the two countries.
He was the first UK leader to attend this important forum in 15 years and his presence indicated a desire to put relations between the two countries on a new footing after the disastrous Johnson years. It was no surprise that Johnson made a determined effort in the days before the announcement on Monday to throw a spanner in the works but he backed off when it became clear that Sunak had mobilised almost the entire Conservative Party and most of the Tory press to his side.
[ Boris Johnson criticises Sunak’s new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland ]
The role played in this by Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, a former leading light in the ERG, was important, as was the decision of former ERG firebrand Steve Baker, now a junior minister in the North to back the deal. Ultimately, though, it came down to Sunak’s political courage to lead from the front and take the political risk that his party could fracture yet again. Yesterday he was back to Windsor, where he gathered his parliamentary party for an away day to discuss how his party should prepare for the next UK general election.
Having witnessed the political skill and the passion the prime minister brought, first to negotiating, and then selling the Windsor framework, it might be worth revising the notion that he is certain to lose power in the next UK general election. Contrasting his performance with the dull, unimaginative approach of Keir Starmer, might there even be a chance he could pull off a political miracle akin to that achieved by John Major in 1992? If the events of the past week are anything to go by, he just might.