This Conservative government has hit the point where the only thing that can still shock or surprise us as members of the public is if it looks like they might actually get something useful done.
As a result, last weekend it wasn’t a particular surprise when over the weekend it emerged that Boris Johnson as prime minister had an undisclosed £800,000 “loan” from a foreign businessman – or that the supine cabinet secretary Simon Case had somehow signed it off – or even that Nadhim Zahawi (who served as chancellor for less time than most work experience placements) has had to pay millions in tax after offshoring his shareholding in YouGov.
No, all of that served merely as the usual personal financial shenanigans that presumably fill the days of our Cabinet ministers instead of the work they should be doing. What was surprising, though, was the hesitantly-reported news that the UK and EU might actually be working towards a compromise on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Progress would be welcome: it could help stabilise Northern Ireland, improve relations (and potentially trade) with the European Union, and thaw relations with Joe Biden’s White House – which has been vociferous on this issue.
The UK has, over the last few years, been dealing with a situation that it’s in everyone’s interests to resolve by needlessly inflaming everyone over it – perhaps predictably. In a bid to avoid any kind of return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the Northern Ireland Protocol instead included an agreement that the UK would set up customs checks between the British mainland and Northern Ireland instead.
Having agreed to do that, though, and having signed an international treaty committing ourselves to do that, we… haven’t. For most of the last year, the government had even been threatening to unilaterally withdraw from the Northern Ireland Protocol – an action that would certainly invite significant retaliation from our trading partners.
But lately, there have been tentative green shoots: there have been multiple talks between foreign secretary James Cleverley and EU counterparts, and while there is no solution that will involve no checks anywhere, there are compromises to be reached that can serve to everyone’s advantage. Even more significantly, if we are not constantly at daggers drawn over this issue, we may be able to negotiate on other fronts with the EU as we navigate the realities of our own leadership.
Predictably, the biggest barrier to reaching any actual progress on this lie within the Conservative Party and their allies in the DUP. The Conservatives, somewhat insanely, seemed to promise the DUP that they would not approve a settlement that involved any kind of sea border between mainland UK and Northern Ireland.
This is a complete impossibility unless the UK tolerates a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – itself an absolute non-starter for all parties concerned. Despite its complete impossibility, this pledge has come to have resonance beyond the DUP with fanatical Conservative backbenchers.
It is hard to find any rhyme or reason for the new demands of hard Brexiteers in the government ranks beyond assuming their calculus is that if the EU likes something then it must be bad and so must be opposed. But beyond telling old Johnny Foreigner to piss off, they have no actual plan of their own to resolve the situation.
This leaves us in a strange position where Rishi Sunak could be on the verge of the first diplomatic triumph of his premiership, but will then face ruin from his own party if he pulls it off. Despite an actual majority of more than 70, in practice Sunak is having to govern like John Major in his weakest years, with no ability to command the Commons on anything but the most straightforward of subjects.
The result is that the next few months are set to be miserable ones for Sunak. The “global Britain” promise of Britain as a trading nation cutting lucrative deals with the wider world has been exposed as a fiction. The UK is facing the worst economic crisis of all G7 economies – and boosting growth and productivity relies on being able to better trade with Europe.
Getting that better relationship with Europe relies on getting a compromise over the Northern Ireland Protocol. This is Sunak’s best (and probably only) hope of spurring enough growth by the next election to be able to present a case as a competent business-as-usual type of prime minister – which is in turn his party’s best hope of avoiding political annihilation when that election day comes.
And yet pursuing that very course of action might bring about his own personal political annihilation far sooner, as the modern Conservative Party fights tooth and nail to avoid being saved from itself. There is every chance that the PM negotiates a deal – one to which Labour might savvily offer its support – only to have to withdraw it, owing to a lack of support on his own side.
On the one hand, Sunak has the president of the United States, the commissioners of the European Union, and most of the world’s democratic political leaders, wanting him to find a sensible fix to an intractable situation. On the other, he has his parliamentary party – now well used to bringing down their leaders – demanding he doesn’t.
Surely by now, even Rishi Sunak is wondering why he wanted the job.