On Sunday, one of the UK’s leading political journalists, Tim Shipman of The Sunday Times, reported breathlessly on British prime minister Rishi Sunak’s triumph in negotiations with the European Commission that led to the Windsor Framework on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He wrote: “It was only in the last week that Sunak had managed to win the concession that the British, not EU, medicines regulator should decide what drugs are distributed in Northern Ireland. ‘That went right to the wire,’ one adviser said. ‘He has been very impressive, going into dizzying detail. He’s left people with a real sense of admiration about his clarity and grip.’”
Now, it is important to allow politicians to claim dazzling victories when they are doing the right thing. But this one goes a bit far.
The idea that Sunak scored a hardball triumph in getting the EU to agree that “the British, not EU, medicines regulator should decide what drugs are distributed in Northern Ireland” is just silly. That it can be retold with confidence as part of a heroic narrative tells us how little attention even the British political class pays to Northern Ireland.
Scroll back for a moment to 2021. In October, the EU set out in public the concessions it was prepared to offer to make the protocol more workable. One of them was that it would ensure the free circulation of UK medicines in Northern Ireland. Among the EU’s proposals, as codified in December 2021, was that “The UK assumes sole responsibility for authorising medicines for Northern Ireland.”
Relaxed rules on medicines were actually implemented by the EU last year, ensuring as the UK government’s own “command paper” on the framework acknowledges, “that medicines have continued to flow uninterrupted into Northern Ireland”.
It is important to allow politicians to claim dazzling victories when they are doing the right thing. But this one goes a bit far
This is not to say that the UK did not win further concessions on the process for licensing medicines that are to be used in Northern Ireland. It did. But they are concessions that reflect what has been happening already, and build on offers made in public by the EU in 2021.
Quite simply, the EU had long recognised that there was no case for interfering with the supply of medicines across the Irish Sea, did not in fact interfere, and was very obviously prepared to agree a permanent arrangement that enshrined this non-interference in law. All it really wanted was labelling, monitoring and enforcement to ensure that medicines which do not comply with EU standards do not cross the Border.
Any competent negotiator could have reached this agreement in 2021. All that was required was precisely to negotiate in good faith and stop threatening to tear up the deals that the UK had already done with the EU.
But okay, fair enough – spinning triumphs is not necessarily a dishonourable practice. A good political deal is one that allows both sides to claim credit for getting the other side to climb down.
What’s interesting here, though, is that Sunak’s spinners felt safe in specifying as their boss’s biggest achievement an agreement that was in fact quite easy to extract. Nobody was going to accuse them of Boris Johnson-style exaggeration on this one.
Why? Because not that many people in Britain care all that much about the whole protocol drama. They have never tuned in to this show.
Last Tuesday, the day after the Windsor framework was announced, the British polling company YouGov surveyed a large cross-section of voters. It asked not what they thought of the deal, but how interested they were in it.
Bear in mind that this polling was done when the protocol deal was dominating the headlines. The front pages were “Brexit breakthrough” (The Times), “PM hails ‘new chapter’ in relations with EU after Northern Ireland deal” (The Guardian); ‘Has Rishi done the impossible?” (Daily Mail); “Sunak: My deal is a new way forward” (Daily Telegraph); “PM: My Brexit deal now takes back control” (Daily Express).
So far as I know, every major British broadcasting network had been leading its news bulletins with the deal all day.
Yet, in YouGov’s poll, just six per cent of Brits said they were following this story “very closely”. Almost three times as many (17 per cent) said “I am not aware of the story”.
Not that many people in Britain care all that much about the whole protocol drama. They have never tuned in to this show
Overall, 28 per cent were following the announcements and reactions very or fairly closely, compared to 72 per cent who were mostly or completely indifferent to it. Strikingly, those who voted Leave were less interested in the protocol story than Remainers.
This is no great surprise. A poll for the New Statesman in 2021 found 34 per cent of British people saying they do not feel connected to the people of Northern Ireland at all, 27 per cent feel only a little connected, 29 per cent feel moderately connected, and only 10 per cent feel very connected.
This is what unionists should really be fretting about: their love for Britain is increasingly unrequited. They are in a cold marriage where their partner is bored, indifferent and disconnected.
That’s why there will be no huge Tory revolt against the Windsor deal. Brexit has become tedious, and within that zone of exquisite monotony there is a VIP area of mind-numbing ennui reserved for its effects on Northern Ireland.