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Surprise, Surprise

February 28th 2023

That strange feeling you may have experienced whilst watching the news last night might have been surprise.

Here was a Prime Minister announcing a deal on the trickiest bit of the Brexit riddle. Here was the President of the EU Commission agreeing that yes, they had done a deal and yes, it did contain what the Prime Minister was saying it contained. Here were former die-hard ‘Spartans’ lining up, smiling, to talk about how much had been achieved. Here were the DUP, not going completely tonto or screaming blue murder. Their leader in Westminster even described the deal as representing ‘real progress’ last night. Not an endorsement but closer to one that we’ve had in a long time from the ‘Party of No’.


All of which feels taboo-breakingly, almost indecently shocking after six years of monotonous and predictable failure. There is no doubt that Rishi Sunak has accomplished something important and significant on the Northern Ireland Protocol. It may yet unravel, there will be legal opinions to follow and there are plenty of outrage addicts who would love to find flaws. But it is a significantly better deal for Unionists than any that have preceded it. And it does deliver a great deal of what has been asked for. It turns out that diplomacy, done with a modicum of seriousness and in good faith, can sometimes deliver dividends.

Politically speaking, provided he can keep his party singing from something resembling the same hymn-sheet, Rishi has robbed Boris Johnson of his best argument for himself. Johnson had hoped that Northern Ireland would prove the quagmire in which Sunak would drown himself - as once it had been for Theresa May.

Johnson calculated that his nervous party would never accept any deal that the Prime Minister would be able to achieve. And that, as night follows day, that nervous party would call upon him to fix the mess that he had left behind. It looks as though that calculation was off. And so back to the lecture circuit for our Prime Minister that was and that would seek to be again. It was telling that, unlike Theresa May, Johnson skipped the debate on the deal last night.

Beyond that immediate political advantage, Sunak will be hoping that this creates the medium-term space for him to do other deals with the EU to begin to reduce the trade and economic impact of Brexit. He wants to show momentum in the right direction on the economy - this unlocks some hope of achieving that. But, of course, he hasn’t got long.

Labour is supporting this deal - both in principle but also because resolving this fraught hangover issue may deliver as much in the long-term for Starmer as it does for Sunak. The Labour Leader does not want to go into the next election arguing about Brexit. He also does not want to assume power and immediately be plunged into trying to unpick the legal barriers that are part of what is holding this country back. This deal offers the chance that Labour might - might - enter office with Britain on something of an upswing after a lost near-decade of stagnation and decline.

Still, though, Sunak can look back upon yesterday as a meaningful and concrete political and diplomatic achievement. That’s not really something any of his immediate predecessors can claim to have overseen. It’s a surprise - for his enemies, for all of us - that it has landed as smoothly as it has. And it shows that despite the polls and the problems and the perceptions and the panic, Rishi Sunak has not given up on making something of his premiership.