Good morning. Rishi Sunak hopes to unveil a deal between the UK and the EU to reform the Northern Ireland protocol and end the simmering disputes between the UK, the EU and the US. But no matter what happens, he faces a backlash from within his party. Some thoughts on how he is trying to manage that in today’s note.
The wolf will lie down with der Leyen
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, is meeting Sunak today in a bid to “put the issues with the protocol to bed” and improve relations between Brussels and London, in the words of one EU diplomat. (Find further analysis by George Parker and Jude Webber on Sunak’s gamble in their long-read here).
I’m not going to speculate about whether the deal will be delayed or collapse at the last minute, or how the parliamentary party is going to react to it all, because I think there will be quite enough of that from me over the coming days, weeks and months. Instead I want to talk about the politics of what Sunak is doing at the moment.
One person who is very much not impressed with the prime minister’s approach is Anand Menon (morning Anand!), director of the UK in Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. Anand thinks that Sunak should have been far more open about the negotiations in order to have a better chance of bringing the Democratic Unionist party and Brexiter ultras onboard. Here’s what he told George and Jude:
“This is very, very bad politics. He made a deal in secret, convinced himself it could fly. He’s placed an awful lot of his credibility on the line.”
I rarely disagree with Anand but on this occasion, I think Sunak’s secretive approach is the right one. As I’ve said before, the ultimate problem for the DUP is its handling of the Brexit affair has left it in a position where it has three options: 1) invent time travel, 2) restore power-sharing and facilitate the first Sinn Féin first minister 3) or find an excuse to mothball devolved governance in Northern Ireland.
There’s no prospect of Sunak reaching a deal that will help the DUP accomplish 1). Accepting that Sunak has reached a good deal will force them to do 2). So my underlying assumption is that whatever Sunak agrees will not be good enough for the DUP, or the Tories. Some of the Conservative party’s Brexit ultras will take their lead from the DUP, while others just want an excuse to do harm to Sunak politically. Downing Street is anxiously watching about 60 Tory MPs, out of a total of 355, who have expressed concerns about the deal taking shape with Brussels.
Negotiating more publicly also means letting his hardline Brexiters set their own terms and objectives — of which there is, to be frank, no serious hope or prospect of Sunak being able to fulfil.
By keeping his hand so close to his chest, Sunak can create the impression that he has fought incredibly hard no matter how small the concessions he ends up bringing home or how close they are to the original offer at the start of his negotiations. While he may not have done enough to contain the fallout from this deal within his party, his secretive approach has been the best available one.
Now try this
I very much enjoyed the Alice Neel exhibition at the Barbican this weekend — Rachel Spence’s review, featuring some lovely pieces from the exhibition, is a masterful guide to Neel’s life and work. On the subject of art and the UK, I devoured this week’s FT Magazine cover story by John Gapper, on Joshua Reynolds’ “Portrait of Omai” and why the UK is struggling to keep great works of British art in galleries.
Top stories today
Cooling investment in UK energy | Oil and gas companies are scaling back North Sea operations and prioritising investment outside the UK because of the government’s windfall taxes, the industry’s trade body has warned.
Drugmakers demand a cut in medicines levy | Pharmaceutical companies have fired the opening shots in a battle with the UK’s NHS over a de facto drugs tax they pay the government, warning that Britain could miss out on £6bn of research and development.
Love’s Labour’s won | Lord David Sainsbury, former chair of the eponymous supermarket chain, has given £2mn to Labour in a big boost for Britain’s main opposition party as it gears up for the next general election.
Brighter forecasts for British economy | The UK economic outlook for this year has improved, with analysts forecasting a smaller contraction in output than previously because of falling energy prices and better than anticipated business and consumer sentiment.