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Rishi Sunak's Political Nous Questioned Over "Patronising" Handling Of Northern Ireland Protocol Deal

A mural in Belfast displayed during last summer's Tory leadership contest (Alamy)

6 min read

Rishi Sunak's hope of announcing a Northern Ireland Protocol deal with the European Union this week has fallen apart, and the Prime Minister is now facing questions over what went wrong, and how he intends to get it over the line.

This time last week, the government was confidently getting ready to end fierce deadlock on the Northern Ireland Protocol dating back to early 2022, achieving what former PMs Boris Johnson and Liz Truss had failed to and marking a major moment for Sunak six months into his premiership.

Months of technical negotiations between UK and EU officials had delivered a draft agreement on the post-Brexit treaty for Northern Ireland, and government whips had drawn up a provisional plan for Sunak to make a House of Commons statement about his agreement with Brussels on Tuesday.  

All that remained for Sunak was the not insignificant task of selling it at the political level. And that is where what now appears to have been an overly optimistic plan has unravelled this week.  

Fierce, but predictable, backlash from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and staunchly pro-Brexit Tory MPs in the European Research Group (ERG) forced No 10 to postpone their much hoped-for moment of triumph to later in the week and shoot for Thursday. In the end, it did not materialise at all.

According to The Times, the government now expects that it will be able to announce on Monday, but even delayed success for Sunak will now be tainted by intense criticism of how his administration has handled the politics of the Protocol saga.

Since entering Downing Street late last year the Prime Minister has already faced accusations that while he is on top of technical detail, he is lacking in political nous, and the failure to launch of his Protocol deal appears to be yet another example. 

Specifically, Sunak is being asked why he didn't engage with the DUP – whose approval of a UK-EU deal is key to restoring Northern Ireland's power-sharing arrangements – much sooner in the process, sparing him the embarrassment of seeing his deal with Brussels derailed at the final hurdle.

The DUP, led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, complains that it was shut out from the substance of the negotiations until the last minute, despite the party's support being vital to the success of the talks.

“Given the government knew what was being talked about and the areas under discussion, there was no excuse to not have spoken to us at an earlier stage," Sammy Wilson, the DUP MP for East Antrim, told PoliticsHome.

"We could have said to them: ‘Look, there’s a gap in what you’re looking at and if you don’t fill it, there will be difficulty’.

“The fact that there is a huge gap in what has been agreed has arisen because of that. That gap still would have been there, as the EU has not been willing to concede on the role of its law in Northern Ireland, but the government wouldn’t have publicly talked about a deal being imminent."

DUP MP Sammy Wilson
DUP MP Sammy Wilson 

Speaking to PoliticsHome earlier this week, as Sunak's difficulty in getting the DUP on board was becoming clear, a senior Conservative said Sunak had repeated the mistakes of former prime minister Theresa May, who was ultimately ousted over Brexit, by trying to deliver a deal with Brussels without the support of the DUP and the Tory party's eurosceptic wing. "There's rolling the pitch and then there's bouncing someone into something," they said. "There's a difference."

Sunak has also been criticised for the tone he has struck in conversations he has had with the DUP in his attempts to convince the party to green light the terms of the proposed agreement with the EU.

"He needs to show the DUP that he can empathise," a Whitehall source told PoliticsHome.

"It’s more than just listening to them and understanding the practical problems. He gets that it's a big issue, but he doesn't feel that it's unfair in the same way that the DUP does."

Wilson said the DUP's meeting with Sunak in Belfast late last week, which he himself did not attend, went badly because of what he described as a patronising approach by the PM.

“There was an attitude of: ‘I’ve done all of this for you, now be good boys and get back into Stormont’," Wilson said. "It was: ‘We are your daddy’." 

But there are others involved in the Northern Ireland Protocol saga who say the level of criticism facing Sunak and his under-fire No 10 operation is unfair, and in some cases motivated by alternative political agendas.

While the PM is accused of lacking in the department of political judgement, figures who have sat down with him in recent weeks have been impressed by his grasp of the issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol, and say it far exceeds that of his predecessors.

A business leader who met with Sunak virtually on Wednesday to discuss how the post-Brexit treaty was impacting the region said he was "extraordinarily well across the detail".

"There was nothing being fed in that he wasn’t already aware of. It [the meeting] was more about putting names to faces," they told PoliticsHome.

Former PM Boris Johnson (Alamy)

Those who sympathise with Sunak argue that this week's intense criticism fails to reflect the sheer difficulty of the situation he inherited when he took over from Truss in October, and say that even if he had disclosed details of the proposed agreement to the DUP several weeks sooner, the difficulty to reconcile the unionist party's hardline demands with what is actually achievable in the negotiations would have been no different.

"He could have had those conversations earlier, but would that have changed the situation with the EU?” one figure familiar with the UK's negotiations with the European Commission said. 

There is also a belief that Conservative MPs who dislike Sunak and want to see Johnson return to Downing Street are using the issue of the protocol as a stick to beat the PM with, and don't actually share the DUP's level of concern about the role of the European Court of Justice in the region.

Indeed, DUP figures have been surprised by some of the Conservative MPs who have weighed in behind their campaign to secure more fundamental changes to the treaty than what Sunak has secured in recent days.

"It’s starting to feel like its more about being anti-Rishi than being anti-agreement," said one.

A former minister on the moderate wing of the Tory party said Johnson's recent intervention in the Brexit debate, in which he put pressure on Sunak to expedite the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, was "absolutely outrageous" and dismissed the former-prime minister as a "charlatan".

Politicians in London and Brussels will spend the coming days finding ways to refine their agreement in a way that convinces the DUP to end their year-long protest. The question of whether Sunak can clear that enormous final hurdle will be pivotal to his premiership. 

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