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Good morning. George Parker here, standing in for Stephen while he’s enjoying his holiday. I should have been on hols too, but for the fact that Rishi Sunak flew out to Belfast last night for talks on the Northern Ireland protocol. A deal could be very, very close. Standby. Plus, the strikes get worse and the SNP prepares to choose a new leader. And this was supposed to be half-term.

Stephen will be back on Monday.

Brexit talks on the cusp — this time they really are

After months of negotiations and false dawns, talks to settle the corrosive row over the Northern Ireland protocol have pretty much finished. Now the big question is whether Rishi Sunak has the political nerve to sell the deal to the Democratic Unionist party and Eurosceptic Conservative MPs.

Sunak flew out to Belfast yesterday for talks with “stakeholders”, of whom by far the most important are the DUP; the UK’s largest pro-UK political party is boycotting the Stormont assembly in protest at the operation of the protocol, which sets the rules for post-Brexit trade.

The prime minister is very much flying blind. He can guess what the DUP and the European Research Group of Tory MPs might think of the outline deal, but until now he has not briefed them on the details. The moment of truth has arrived.

The outline deal has been visible for months: the creation of a new “green lane” for goods travelling across the Irish Sea from Great Britain into Northern Ireland and which would only be sold within the region. Checks on intra-UK trade would more or less disappear.

A separate “red lane” would be created at ports such as Larne for exports to Great Britain which were intended to proceed through Northern Ireland and across the open land border into the Irish Republic and the rest of the EU single market. Checks here would apply.

The big constitutional question, which causes great angst among some Tory and DUP MPs, is the precise role of the European Court of Justice in overseeing the deal and continuing to exert “foreign” jurisdiction over UK territory.

British officials believe Sunak will just have to take on the “sovereignty purists”. One said: “Does Mrs O’Dowd in Belfast really care about the ECJ? Let’s focus on what people really care about.”

Sunak prides himself as a political fixer, someone who applies himself to difficult problems and comes up with practical solutions. Ending the longstanding row over the Northern Ireland protocol comes firmly into that category and offers some instant rewards.

The EU has indicated it would respond to a deal on the protocol by inviting Britain back into the €95bn Horizon Europe science collaboration project, which is seen as vital by British scientists and universities.

President Joe Biden has talked of coming to the UK on a state visit off the back of attending celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended years of violence in Northern Ireland.

What Sunak doesn’t know, but will have a better idea of this weekend, is whether the DUP would respond to the deal by returning to Stormont and whether his own Eurosceptic MPs would wear it.

David Jones, deputy chair of the ERG, warns of discontent which would not “bode well” for the prime minister. But Sunak does not necessarily need to put any deal to the vote in the House of Commons.

Sorting things out while MPs are on their half-term recess and dispersed across their constituencies — or the ski slopes of Europe — gives him an advantage, hence the dramatic dash to Belfast last night.

The prime minister will go on to meet EU leaders in Munich tomorrow — on the margins of a big security conference — to report back on how the deal has gone down with the DUP and his own MPs.

Some British officials believe Sunak will need some kind of “row” with the EU to prove to the DUP and Tory Eurosceptics that he has gone to the wire and extracted more concessions at the last minute. “It won’t be simple,” said one British official last night.

Sunak’s problem is that the same MPs who are vexed about Brexit are often the same MPs who want the government to cut taxes in next month’s Budget — something the prime minister is trying to resist.

Fixing the Northern Ireland protocol would remove a shadow over Britain’s post-Brexit relations with Europe and the US, but at what cost politically at home?

Now try this

For those who like their politics mixed up with a bit of classical drama, head to the National Theatre for this intriguing reimagining of Phaedra. Simon Stone’s contemporary version of Seneca’s tragedy has had mixed reviews, but it will provoke a reaction for sure. In FT theatre critic Sarah Hemming’s assessment, “ancient myth becomes a scathing critique of western middle-class privilege”.

Unfortunately, Rishi Sunak decided to reshuffle his cabinet and remake Whitehall on the night I went, so I had to do a runner back to the House of Commons at the interval. If anyone knows what happens in the second half, could they let me know?

Have a wonderful weekend.

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