June 21. 2024. 2:04

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Rishi Sunak is learning he can’t please everyone on Northern Ireland protocol

Four weeks ago this Wednesday, Rishi Sunak was lanced during prime minister’s questions (PMQs) by his opposite number, the Labour leader Keir Starmer, who denounced him as “hopelessly weak” for his hesitant handling of cabinet “sleaze” allegations. It wounded the Tory leader.

“Is he starting to wonder if this job is just too big for him?” quipped Starmer at the time, as he thrust deep into Sunak’s underbelly, where resides the perception among the prime minister’s critics that he may be a lightweight, too timorous to bare his teeth.

This Wednesday, as negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol near a denouement that might require him to face down Eurosceptic opposition to a deal, the issue of whether Sunak is strong or weak is likely once again to be a central theme of PMQs. He will need better armour than last time.

By Wednesday, Sunak will either have presented a deal with the European Commission to his cabinet at a scheduled meeting on Tuesday, with or without the imprimatur of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), or he will have baulked, spooked by warnings from the DUP and its allies in the Tory Eurosceptic right that any role in Northern Ireland for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is verboten.

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What is the Northern Ireland protocol?


Rishi Sunak is learning he can’t please everyone on Northern Ireland protocol

Rishi Sunak is learning he can’t please everyone on Northern Ireland protocol

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Sunak so far gives the impression only that he wants the DUP on board. Yet allies of his appear to have briefed the Times newspaper at the weekend that he is prepared to do a deal with Europe even if the DUP rejects it and decides to keep the Northern Ireland Assembly in abeyance.

This would put Sunak at odds with many senior members of his own party, such as leader of the House of Commons and prominent Brexiteer Penny Mordaunt, who ran against Sunak for the party leadership last summer. She warned on Sunday that a deal without the DUP would not work.

There is a school of thought on the European side that Sunak, conscious that his critics paint him as a weakling, cannot be seen to back down to the DUP and the European Research Group, the Eurosceptic wing of his party that pushes the government to take a hard line in Brexit negotiations.

If that happens, Sunak could opt to strike a deal with Europe that allows the ECJ some sort of ultimate say over trade disputes in the North, and force it through without putting it to a vote in the House of Commons. That would be a “my way or the highway” move to face down his critics.

Senior Brexiteers, on the other hand, seem convinced he will not do this, based upon what they have been told. Their vision of a strong Sunak would be for him to walk away from the talks unless the European Commission is prepared to fold entirely on the ECJ issue. But that would make him look weak to many other outsiders.

If a deal is struck, Brexiteers might be able to force a vote anyway to foment a backbench rebellion. The deal would pass, but only with the help of Labour votes. That would hardly buttress an image of Sunak as a strongman.

If it turns out that the DUP surprises everybody and backs a deal, then not only will Sunak appear strong, he will come out of the whole affair looking like the consummate dealmaker that his three predecessors were not. That could set his premiership on a whole new, positive course. Much is at stake personally for the Tory leader in the days ahead.