Boris Johnson, we are told, is “deeply concerned” that the government will strike a compromise with the EU over Northern Ireland which gives a role to European judges.
Johnson’s unhappiness with the Northern Ireland protocol, signed by one Boris Johnson in his desperation to ‘get Brexit done’, has been long trailed. But it is looking increasingly the case that exploiting unhappiness with it among Brexiteers may be how he sees himself getting back into Downing Street.
To restate the situation – and it’s worth doing so, as many of the European Research Group seem still seem unable to grasp the protocol – Brexit meant there being either a border on the island of Ireland, impossible for reasons even the ERG should understand, or in the Irish Sea. Johnson, having pledged to the DUP he would never agree to a border in the Irish Sea agreed to a border in the Irish Sea.
Northern Ireland keeps following EU rules on product standards, trade flows freely, most people’s lives in the province are barely affected (quite the reverse, actually – figures last year showed Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK to see its post-Brexit GDP growth grow).
But disputes over the protocol are settled by the European Court of Justice and, even if Rishi Sunak and the EU do agree tweaks in the coming weeks, are likely to remain so in some form, even if the European Commission is stopped referring disputes directly to the Luxembourg court, as has been mooted.
And this of course is too much for the hardliners of the ERG. Not that any of them could make a case legalistically as to why the European Court shouldn’t have even an arm’s length role, nor how it having it would have any detrimental effect on the citizens of Antrim or Armagh (Tory Brexiteers show little interest in Northern Irish affairs except around the protocol – indeed, Dominic Cummings was once reported to have said “I don’t care if Northern Ireland falls into the fucking sea”).
But it does impinge on their quixotically pure definition of sovereignty, their overriding purpose, the MacGuffin in their Brexit: The Movie. And as such, when Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen in all likelihood announce their deal, probably with the most cursory of border checks, the ERG will declare it surrender, betrayal, a kick in the teeth to 17.4 million voters. And Boris Johnson will look on, and like what he sees.
Rishi Sunak will be left with two choices. He could cave in in the face of Brexiteer pressure, u-turn, tear up the new protocol. He has shown several times in his brief time in Number 10 he is prone to do so in the face of such pressure – on fracking, wind farms and housing targets. He wouldn’t earn the love of the ERG, who still believe, at heart, the PM is a Remainer. But it would call off the dogs for another – three, four? – months. He won’t get a state visit from Joe Biden, and might get a trade war with the EU. But he’d be prime minister, if only for a little while longer.
Or he could push on, if he believes it to be the right thing to do. Keir Starmer, cleverly, has indicated Labour would vote through any changes to the protocol if they are the right thing for the UK.
And then the Brexiteers will turn to their king across the water. Boris Johnson will make his opposition clear publicly this time – a speech, a Mail column perhaps – rather than through “friends”. And the Tory MPs, who long seem to have seller’s remorse on Johnson, will pine for his return.
A “betrayal” on the Northern Ireland protocol followed by likely disastrous local election results in May and by June Boris Johnson could be strolling back into Downing Street. It would be chutzpah of the highest order for him to use the protocol he himself signed – if not, perhaps, read – to make his comeback, but it would be chutzpah he is well capable of.