Rishi Sunak has enjoyed a relatively easy ride since becoming prime minister at the end of October last year. He and the chancellor Jeremy Hunt have steadied the economic ship after the stormy 44 days of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, and we can now look forward over the next two years to what the Office for Budgetary Responsibility calls the “largest fall in real disposable income since records began in 1956”.
Away from the good news, Sunak is facing the biggest tests of his premiership over the next few weeks and, like his immediate predecessors going back to the referendum, Brexit is at the bottom of it.
And is just as great a threat to him.
The clock is ticking on the Windsor framework
MEPs in the European Parliament voted last week to approve the Windsor framework by 537 to 43, calling on the UK Government to end the unilateral ‘grace periods’. The rapporteur responsible said the Windsor framework was, “an important step in the right direction, and we now expect its full implementation”.
The EU Council of leaders intends to rubber stamp the new agreement on Tuesday while MPs in Westminster have been promised a vote on Wednesday, one the government is likely to win comfortably, with Labour support if necessary despite some Tory MPs complaining Downing Street is playing fast and loose.
Joe Biden and Bill Clinton have announced they intend to visit Northern Ireland next month to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday agreement on 10 April.
The framework is supported overwhelmingly (97%) by the nationalist community and by two-thirds of all voters in Northern Ireland. It seems everyone is on board; all that is except the DUP and the ERG, the very groups that the new arrangements are designed to placate.
The Democratic Unionist Party will not support the Windsor framework
The prime minister is guilty of overselling the benefits of the Windsor framework and is in danger of looking every bit as much a snake oil salesman as Boris Johnson.
He told MPs on 27 February (Col 571) that the Windsor framework “removes any sense of a border in the Irish sea and ensures the free flow of trade within the UK” and this “fundamental, far-reaching change […] permanently removes the border in the Irish sea.”
This is emphatically not true, despite three former Brexit secretaries parroting it in the Daily Mail the following day without having read the details, and the DUP know it. Neither does the Stormont ‘brake’ give parties in Northern Ireland the right to “block” amendments to EU laws applying in the province, it merely gives them the right to ask the UK to government veto them, a right they perhaps thought they might have had anyway.
The DUP was told by an associate professor in international peace studies at Trinity College Dublin, writing in The Irish Times, that the proposed arrangements are “as good as it gets for unionism” but this is of little comfort to leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson since they seem not to meet any of his seven tests. Moreover, only 38% of unionists support the Windsor framework.
Donaldson was in Washington last week casting a shadow over the run up to the St Patrick’s day celebrations, where he told The Press Club: “The Windsor Framework does not deal with some of the fundamental problems at the heart of our current difficulties. It is my current assessment that there remain key areas of concern which require further clarification, re-working and change as well as seeing further legal text.” It looks like an understatement.
Talks are said to be ongoing to convince the DUP to accept the framework but yesterday The Telegraph reported that the largest unionist party in the province is set to come out against the deal.
If so, their stance will in no small part be down to the efforts of Jim Allister MLA, leader of the smaller but more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), who took out full-page ads in The Belfast Telegraph last week referring to the ‘Windsor Whitewash’ and comparing what he calls the ‘legal reality’ against ‘government spin’.
Allister has been described as Northern Ireland’s answer to Nigel Farage and the prime reason the DUP will never accept the deal.
The ERG’s so-called star chamber is apparently to issue a highly critical report on Tuesday condemning the Windsor framework and claiming it would “shackle the whole of the UK to EU laws and regulations” according to The Sunday Times. They will say it will prevent any meaningful divergence because that would create new barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland.
There seems little point in forcing through legislation to render the Windsor framework legal if the DUP still refuse to join the power sharing executive. They still have the prime minister in an arm lock.
The retained EU law bill
Next on Sunak’s troubled agenda is the retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill (REUL). It was introduced into the Commons on 19 January but at the moment is drifting around the Lords where the report stage is scheduled to start on 19 April.
At the committee stage their lordships tabled 147 amendments, many of which are about giving parliament and the devolved administrations greater powers over repealing or amending 4,000 or so retained EU laws. If MPs reject all such amendments it’s tantamount to the lower house of our legislature voting to emasculate itself, something you may think impossible but probably isn’t.
But if opposition inside parliament is strong, outside it’s even worse.
Paul Waugh, in a great op ed in inews, sets out the growing list of bodies who openly reject the idea of a bonfire of EU laws. This includes the TUC, the CBI and Make UK, the RSPB, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and the Women’s Institute.
Waugh also points to polling which finds that British firms strongly support environmental regulation with 72% agreeing said that the government regulates businesses’ environmental practices “too little” or the “right amount”. Only a fifth think the regulations are excessive.
Nearly four in five (79%) UK companies are unwilling to accept lower health and safety standards for their employees and customers, with just 7% saying they would accept a weakening of the rules.
The TCA contains various measures the EU can use to retaliate if we depart too far from EU rules in an attempt to tilt the playing field in our favour. Coincidentally the EU last week unanimously passed legislation to enable the Commission to implement those rebalancing provisions.
The REUL bill is about scrapping or amending 4,000 or so retained EU laws, by the end of the year. There are provisions to extend this date but not beyond 23 June 2026.
It was a massive, virtually impossible task for ministers and the civil service when the REUL bill was first introduced on 19 January, but with every passing week the time available shrinks while the amount of work remains unaltered, always a recipe for disaster.
If any of the Lords amendments giving MPs a significant say are accepted you can wave goodbye to any chance of the bill ever achieving anything. The Commons will never agree on which laws need attention, let alone if they should be repealed or amended and how.
Nobody apart from Jacob Rees-Mogg and a few ERG Spartans want the bill, particularly businesses; it will bog parliament and the civil service down for months even years, newly antagonise the EU and in the end achieve little or nothing. Sunak isn’t going to die in a ditch for that. Watch out for a U-turn.
More Woes for Sunak
As if that wasn’t enough to be going on with, Johnson, still a darling of the right, appears before the cross-party privileges committee on Wednesday to give evidence in his own defence against charges that he misled parliament about his own knowledge of the Downing Street parties during lockdown.
A lot of Tory MPs and Conservative associations blame Sunak for Johnson’s demise, so his handling of the committee’s final report will add to the pressure to water down any punishment recommended.
Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC says he is likely also to become a hostage to his inflated and probably unrealisable promises on childcare and small boats, both issues with well-known links to Brexit-induced labour shortages and promises to control our borders. And Suella Braverman’s plans to deport ‘illegal’ immigrants to Rwanda is likely to end in numerous legal challenges.
But it is the Windsor framework that has thrown the problems of Brexit into sharp relief. If there cannot be a land border in Ireland or a sea border between GB and Northern Ireland, what is the alternative?
The DUP and the loyalist community in Ulster, together with Rishi Sunak, may soon find out the price of the Brexit they supported and more importantly, who is going to foot the bill.