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I’m happy Steve Baker’s got closure – now, what about the rest of us?

The ex-‘Brexit hard man’ hopes his mental struggles are now over, yet millions continue to suffer because of policies he espoused

Image: The New European

There are times when political events can feel so overwhelming that they do something remarkable – they reveal the truth. The Windsor Framework, agreed between Britain and the EU, and which sets the terms for trade between the EU, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, has done just that.

The announcement of the deal was followed by a debate in the Commons. It was there, in the Lobby that Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland minister, gave an interview to Newsnight.

Despite his ministerial position, Baker had been excluded from negotiations with the EU. He did not reveal why he was excluded – although it seems obvious that his former leadership of the hardline ERG is the reason – but did say that the prime minister told him his input had helped. “He impressed on me that I was in the room,” said Baker, “and he did read the papers I gave him and I did influence what’s been done.” At this point in the interview, it became clear that Steve Baker was weeping.

“Seven years of this cost me my mental health,” he said. “November ’21, I had a major mental health crisis. Anxiety and depression. Couldn’t go on. People couldn’t tell.”

“Holding those tigers by the tail,” he said, “took its toll. We’re only human.” It was remarkable to see Baker talk this way, considering his self-styled reputation as the “Brexit hard man” of the Tory right, a title he bestowed upon himself during a Sky News interview in April 2019.

“That ‘Brexit hard man’ thing was the stupidest, worst mistake I ever made,” he told the interviewer. Baker had originally thought it was a joke. It was, he said, “a mistake at the end of an exhausting day,” and one that, at the general election “cost me 2,000 votes in Wycombe”.

When it came to whether the deal would please all sides, and crucially whether the DUP would accept the agreement, Baker was equally candid. “If they [the DUP] reject this deal, then we’ll have a terrible problem and I honestly don’t know what more we’d be able to practically do, reasonably, on top of this.”

The consequence would be that “there wouldn’t be a government in Northern Ireland – indefinitely.”

Politicians do not usually talk like this. The most recent comparable example was the interview with the Conservative MP Charles Walker, who famously spoke to the BBC in the aftermath of Liz Truss’s calamitous attempt to whip a Commons vote on fracking. That vote ended in disarray and defeat for the government. “I hope all those people that put Liz Truss in No.10 – I hope it was worth it,” Walker told a startled interviewer. “I hope it was worth it for the ministerial red box. I hope it was worth it to sit round the cabinet table.”

Walker continued in a white-lipped rage: “I’ve had enough – I’ve had enough of talentless people putting their tick in the right box not because it’s in the national interest but because it’s in their personal interest.”

Baker’s interview was given in what he considered to be a moment of national success, while Walker was speaking at a moment of crushing failure – but on both occasions, the magnitude of events seemed to break down the usual barriers of restraint.

The Windsor deal was, said Baker, a “negotiating triumph, and an act of great statesmanship,” adding that this was so “on the EU’s part as well as Rishi’s”. He went further: “What an incredible opportunity it provides for the people of Northern Ireland – and actually the whole of Europe – to move beyond this awful populism we’ve suffered.”

A remarkable line. Baker didn’t say who was responsible for that populism, but throughout the interview he seemed to be edging towards something that he couldn’t quite say. The deal, he said, would mean, “The restoration of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. Full access to the UK market, in full, without process.” The idea that Northern Ireland would benefit from remaining in a union with the much larger economy across the water was an interesting point, especially coming from a convinced Brexit supporter like Baker.

Baker is right to say that the deal represents genuine progress and is the end product of skillful negotiation. It seems the EU is willing to deal with Rishi Sunak in a way that it would not deal with Boris Johnson. But when Baker said that the agreement is, “an opportunity for us to close one chapter of our national story and move on to the next,” as much as he would like that to be the case, it is not so. After a dark period, Baker may have achieved some personal closure, but millions of others have not.

All this agreement does is restore, in a slightly different form, a situation that was already in place before the UK left the EU. And the very fact of this deal’s existence is an admission that Brexit damaged the UK in fundamental and potentially dangerous ways, and that the situation needed repair.

The issue of the border on the island of Ireland is so sensitive and carries such international weight, particularly in the US and especially as the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches, that it led to an urgent need to solve the problems caused by Brexit. But there is no comparable urgency when it comes to the rest of the UK. England, Scotland and Wales have no impending anniversaries. No10 is under no international pressure to fix Britain’s Brexit problems, the stalling economy, the lack of investment, the food shortages, the damage to small businesses who seek to trade with the mainland EU countries.

And so, while the negotiation of the Windsor Framework may have been a success for Sunak, for Northern Ireland and for the EU, it inevitably leads to the question of what a successful EU deal would look like for the whole of the UK. But Sunak and Baker, both of them hard Brexiters, cannot ask that question. To do so would be to admit in public what many Conservatives now say in private, which is that Brexit was a dreadful mistake.

The supporters and instigators of Brexit, including Sunak and Baker, are left celebrating deals such as this, which do nothing more than reverse a small part of the damage that Brexit has caused – that they have caused. It is sobering to think that, for Britain, now, that counts as a major success.

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