In one important respect, Britain’s prime minister has obeyed Healey’s First Law of Holes. Denis Healey was one of the most talented of British politicians never to become prime minister. He famously advised: “When you are in a hole, stop digging.” His Second Law, since you ask, was: “When your opponent is in a hole and digging, for God’s sake don’t stop him.”
Faced with one of his toughest problems, Rishi Sunak has stopped digging. He has abandoned the stance of his two predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, toward the European Union and negotiated an agreement to revise the Northern Ireland Protocol. Johnson had agreed the protocol with Brussels in order to reconcile the province’s unique status, as part of the United Kingdom but remaining, post-Brexit, within the EU’s single market. Despite having agreed the protocol, Johnson quickly disowned it. He tried and failed to persuade the EU to rewrite it.
On Johnson’s side were Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and most Conservative members of parliament (MPs). They hated the protocol because trade between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain was subject to customs checks. In the view of the protocol’s critics, this undermined the notion that trade between two parts of the UK was Britain’s business: Brussels and—if a dispute arose—the European Court of Justice should keep well clear.
Johnson and Truss reckoned the best way to assert this principle was to play hardball with the EU. They threatened to pass a new law giving the government the power to rip up the protocol. Brussels did not take kindly to this threat. Negotiations stalled—not just on this issue but on other things, notably Britain’s wish to rejoin the EU’s Horizon Europe program for pan-European collaboration on scientific research. Meanwhile, Stormont—Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly—was suspended because the DUP refused to take part until the protocol was scrapped. All in all, relations between London and Brussels, and also between London and Belfast, were in a Healey-shaped hole, and the digging went on.
Until the last few weeks. Sunak decided to break with the confrontational strategy of his predecessors. He dialled down the rhetoric in his talks with the EU. He dispensed with threats and resurrected two words that Johnson and Truss had buried: trust and compromise. With James Cleverley, his foreign secretary, he built a relationship with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, and Maroš Šefčovič, European Commission vice-president for interinstitutional relations who is leading the talks with the UK.
Sunak has succeeded where Johnson failed. The new agreement, the Windsor Framework, was unveiled on February 27. It does not give the DUP or right-wing Conservatives everything they wanted. It removed most barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the mainland—but not all. The deal reduces the role of the European Court of Justice in overseeing trading arrangements—but did not end it completely. In short, it goes a long way toward solving the practical problems caused by the protocol. Sunak has also shelved the bill that would have given him the power to scrap the protocol.
The new mood was evident when Sunak and von der Leyen unveiled the deal. They called each other “Rishi” and “Ursula.” The Windsor hotel, the venue for their meeting, hosts many weddings; one journalist wrote that this was entirely appropriate, given the way the two leaders “declared their undying affection.” Earlier in the day, Sunak had surprised Stephanie Riso, one of von der Leyen’s negotiating team, by giving her a small birthday present—as if it was a groom’s gift to a bridesmaid.
The deal has been welcomed by most MPs at Westminster. Labour and the other main opposition parties have agreed to support it. So will the vast majority of Conservative MPs, including most committed Brexiters. The DUP has not done so—yet. The early signals are that it will reluctantly accept it in due course.
However, in terms of domestic British politics, the most notable consequence has been the damage the deal has done to Boris Johnson’s hopes of returning as prime minister. His plan was obvious: Sunak would either fail to reach agreement with the EU—or do so on terms that many Conservative MPs would reject. Neither thing has happened. Johnson has said he will find it “very difficult” to vote for the deal. But he is far more isolated than he had hoped. The chances of his returning to Downing Street look increasingly remote.
Beyond Westminster’s who’s-up-who’s-down melodrama, the large question is whether the Windsor Framework will be a springboard for improving UK-EU relations in other areas. Three are particularly significant.
First, will the UK rejoin Horizon? Sunak wants this to happen. Leading British universities are desperate to resume collaboration with their European partners. The EU has refused to discuss this while the Northern Ireland deadlock persisted. Now that this obstacle has been removed, talks can restart. But there are still tricky issues to sort out, such as the UK’s financial contribution. Agreement should be possible, but we should prepare for bumps on the road to the destination.
Second, can Sunak enlist sufficient help from France for his ambition to stop people crossing the English Channel in small boats to seek asylum in the UK? Since 2019 the numbers have exploded from a few hundred to more than 45,000 a year. Faced with pressure from within his own party, and, indeed, right-wing newspapers, Sunak has introduced draconian measures, such as deporting people who arrive in the UK illegally, and denying them the right of appeal.
Sunak’s language appeals to his base: for example, saying he is “up for the fight” with lawyers and judges who try to stand in his way. But he is resisting demands from his more strident supporters for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. And the practical reality is that he needs help from French President Emmanuel Macron in order to put out of business the traffickers who sell places on the dangerous boats that cross the channel. The new mood of trust and cooperation between London and Brussels seems to have extended to Paris, with Sunak and Macron reported to agree to extra patrols on French beaches funded by Britain. Will this help to put the criminal gangs organising the channel crossings out of business?
Third, the big one: Brexit’s cost to Britain’s economy. Much of this is down to the end of frictionless trade between the UK and EU. Until or unless the UK rejoins the single market—or negotiates an arrangement that has much the same effect—trade will continue to suffer. A better trade deal could reduce that cost. This not at the top of Sunak’s immediate agenda. But he is likely to seek progress before the next UK general election, which will probably be held in 2024. And if he doesn’t, then maybe the new mood in UK-EU relations will help an improved trade deal to be negotiated by Keir Starmer, the Labour leader who is favourite to be prime minister after the election.
Let us not exaggerate all this. There are other, bigger, challenges facing the UK and, indeed, Europe and the world—from the war in Ukraine to terrorism, and from climate change to Artificial Intelligence. Courage, determination, fresh thinking, and strategic clarity are all needed if the UK is to climb out of its hole. But it now has a prime minister who has, at last, stopped digging.