Rishi Sunak is quietly betraying Brexit
His new Northern Ireland deal will tie the whole of the UK to EU law.
When I venture to Westminster nowadays, I have taken to playing a little game. It’s a bit childish, but so be it. I seek out some Tory, whether it’s an MP, a No10 homunculus, a special adviser or an ermined toady. I ask each of them a simple question: ‘What, in your opinion, is the Tory Party for?’ Not what was it for, nor indeed what it might become for, but right now, the Tory Party as the party of government? I mean Rishi Sunak’s Conservative administration. ‘What’, I ask, ‘is it for?’.
The answers are revealing. In every case, the question is met by a period of baffled silence. In one or two cases, I receive the traditional answer of low taxes, strong defence, proper policing, low migration and support for the traditional institutions of our society. But with a quick verbal prod into that balloon of words – ‘That isn’t what you are doing though, is it?’ – the air slowly squeezes out. A few remain silent, their eyes glancing around the room looking for a plausible escape. The funniest answer came from a former cabinet minister, who drawled, ‘But Gawain, you know that is not a fair question’.
Back in 2019, despite plenty of misgivings, people voted in huge numbers for Boris Johnson and his braggadocio confidence in ‘Getting Brexit Done’. When he was defenestrated in 2022, the Tory membership chose Liz Truss as his replacement. Love her or loathe her, it is clear that she had principles, or what Tony Blair once described as an ‘irreducible core’.
But she was then replaced by Rishi Sunak, in direct opposition to the views of party members. He was widely understood to be her antithesis. Where she had belief, and Boris had focussed bluster, Sunak’s supposed talent was that he was a steady hand on the tiller.
So far, Sunak’s premiership has been a masterclass of retreat. A mere week after becoming PM, Sunak performed a screeching u-turn. Having announced that he wasn’t going to the COP27 eco-boondoggle, given the economic crisis at home, he then not only decided to attend, but also found a spare billion quid to help fund the world’s ‘adaptation to climate change’. It was an attempt to appease the kind of people who would never support him or his party anyway. This habit for vacillation is why Tory grandees struggle to answer my simple question.
Sunak’s proclivity for u-turning has shaped his approach to Brexit. In his pitch to become Tory leader, he promised to torch thousands of EU laws that are still on the UK statute book. But then, in office, he sent Kemi Badenoch into the field to loudly and publicly curtail these ambitions. Instead of thousands of regulations being overturned, only a few hundred, mostly out-of-date and inapplicable regulations have been ditched. His Retained EU Law Act was less a sweeping post-Brexit reform than a bit of clerical housekeeping.
Worst of all has been Sunak’s approach to Northern Ireland. His Windsor Framework deal with the EU has effectively allowed Brussels to annex Northern Ireland, which remains in the EU Single Market for goods and in the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). And there are still checks on goods travelling between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, creating a customs border in the Irish Sea.
Furious at this carving up of the UK, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has spent the past two years refusing to enter government at Stormont. To try to restore power-sharing, Sunak has proposed screening all new UK laws to ensure they don’t create new trade barriers in the Irish Sea. This week, the DUP leadership finally accepted Sunak’s offer.
But while the new regime might ease trade across the Irish Sea, it will also tie mainland Britain to EU law by the back door. It will discourage precisely the kind of regulatory divergence that could make Brexit Britain a more attractive place for business than the EU. In other words, this supposed Brexiteer and Conservative patriot is now creating a situation where UK law will be subjected to a de facto EU veto.
So it is hardly a wonder that those Tories I meet always pause for thought. What are the Conservatives for? Your guess is as good as mine.
Gawain Towler is a commentator, former director of communications for the Brexit Party and a consultant for Reform UK.
Picture by: Getty.
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