Rishi Sunak has much to gain from securing today’s deal with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol. There are serious policy wins available as a result: a less confrontational relationship with the bloc during a time in which the democracies of Europe face an existential threat in the shape of Vladimir Putin, Britain’s possible re-entry into the EU’s Horizon scheme, a warmer relationship with Joe Biden’s White House.
But as important are the political wins. First, there is the next election. This will be hard enough for the Conservatives, but the deal means it will not be one in which “getting Brexit done” — the only one of the promises they made to the country in the 2019 election that they can plausibly claim to have kept — goes the same way as “levelling up”, tackling crime or restoring the UK’s tattered public services.
Second, and even more significantly, it changes the mood music around Sunak himself. The prime minister’s gifts to the Conservative party are increasingly underestimated. He took over a party and a country accelerating towards a serious and permanent loss of its prestige, status and perceived creditworthiness internationally. That both he and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, restored the UK’s credibility to the point they were able to reassure markets and support households through the energy crisis is often underrated as an achievement.
While the Conservative party’s poll rating continues to be dire, Sunak has dragged it from facing extinction to merely facing epochal defeat. James Kanagasooriam, the former Tory pollster who first coined the term “red wall”, has argued that some trends suggest Sunak could even claw back the next election to a 2010-style defeat rather than one as bad as or worse than 1997.
But the perception remains that he leads a party that no longer wants to be led and that, as a result, there is no serious prospect that a Sunak-led government will ever be able to enact lasting or needed reforms. If this is the case, then the best his administration can hope for is that its final years in office are not marked by scandal or continuing crisis.
Sunak’s decision last year not to pursue planning reform using Labour votes was a serious blunder because it conceded the idea that his government would shrink from a fight and that it had little to say. That perception, as much as the opinion poll lead, has helped an aura of inevitability settle around Labour leader Keir Starmer.
Signing a deal with the EU against the objections of his party’s ultras won’t, in and of itself, change perceptions of Sunak so radically as to remove the challenges he faces. But in showing bravery and a willingness to reach agreement over the heads of his irreconcilable flank, Sunak has shifted assumptions that his government’s course will always be set by whichever party member shouts the loudest and grumbles the most.
It is not without risk. Boris Johnson, eyeing the possibility of a return, and Liz Truss, eyeing the prospect of rehabilitation, are both considering making trouble. Sunak has another confrontation with his right wing looming over the Budget in March. But what he has done on Monday, in addition to being an important step forward for Northern Ireland and for UK-EU relations, is to change perceptions of himself and his government. For the first time he looks like someone whose premiership may go down in history as something more than a brief interlude between the eras of Johnson and Starmer.