Brexit Deal Gives Sunak a Chance to End Years of EU Acrimony

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government is beginning its hardest sell: convincing skeptical Northern Irish politicians to back its new post-Brexit deal on trade with the European Union.

Most Read from Bloomberg

Monday’s unveiling of the “Windsor Framework” featured a confident Sunak and a smiling, enthusiastic European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The next, crucial stage of the process will be a game of detail, numbers and political arm-twisting.

Sunak’s team needs to win over a tiny caucus of Northern Ireland’s unionist politicians and an influential group of pro-Brexit MPs from his own Conservative Party. Failure could mean having to push the deal through with support from the opposition Labour Party — which could be politically damaging.

The prime minister is in Belfast on Tuesday as he tries to convince unionists and business to support the deal. He told BBC Radio that he’s “confident” the agreement addresses their concerns.

Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, told the same program “progress” had been made but that “some issues” remain. The party will “take time to study the legal text” before announcing its position, he said.

However, hard-line DUP MPs Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson suggested on Monday night they would not support the deal.

Government officials were cautiously optimistic about how the pact landed. One said there was general relief that Donaldson’s public statements have been measured, and a hope that his party’s MPs would not all oppose the agreement.

The DUP has blocked the formation of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government for more than a year in an ongoing protest at the terms of the original Brexit deal. The party has just eight MPs in Westminster, but wields outsize influence. On Monday, the Commons fell silent when Donaldson spoke.

“Significant progress has been secured across a number of areas,” the DUP leader said, adding: “there remain key issues of concern.” He said his party may seek “clarification, re-working or change.” Sunak said he respected the DUP’s need for time.

The original Brexit treaty gave Northern Ireland unique access to both the UK and EU markets, but effectively imposed a customs border in the Irish Sea between the Great Britain and the region. That proved tough to implement and controversial in the challenging politics of the region. It also became a tempting target for pro-Brexit politicians eager to prolong the battle with Brussels.

Officials took heart from the muted response of Sunak’s chief internal critics, former Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who are both reflecting on Monday’s text, according to people close to them. Sunak suggested he had briefed Johnson on the deal in recent days. “Of course I speak to the former prime minister,” he told the BBC.

Rebels on Alert

Sunak has promised to give MPs a vote at “an appropriate time.” That is likely to be next week, according to a person familiar with the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity. To win without Labour votes, his whips need to convince significant numbers of potential rebels.

The European Research Group of Brexiteer MPs is awaiting advice from its lawyers and will meet Tuesday evening. While some ERG MPs are prepared to back the deal, others will take their lead from the DUP. That means a sizable parliamentary rebellion is still possible if unionists oppose the agreement, three ERG MPs said.

Government whips think about 20 Tory MPs would oppose the deal. The rebels say their numbers could rise above 40. Sunak has a working majority of 67, which means he risks having to rely on Labour.

In a boost, Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker, a former ERG chief who helped scupper former Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, enthusiastically backed the agreement. Other Brexit-supporting senior backbenchers, including former Brexit Secretary David Davis, also gave their backing.

“It’s time for us all to turn the page, move on to the next chapter,” Baker told the BBC on Monday.

But prominent DUP and ERG MPs, including Sammy Wilson, Mark Francois and Bill Cash, were more skeptical in the House of Commons.

A government official said they will make the case that even critics of the new framework should accept that it would be a significant improvement on the status quo for Northern Ireland.

Relations Reborn

Passing the deal would clear a path for the UK to strengthen ties with the EU — its biggest trading partner — after years of wrangling over Brexit.

“His prize will be better relations with the EU and America,” said Anton Spisak, a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change who previously worked on the UK’s Brexit negotiations.

It’s likely to unlock progress on several issues frozen by Brussels, including the Horizon science program — welcome news for UK universities. A pact on financial services, previously agreed to but not signed, could also be unlocked.

Sunak’s allies also see the deal as key to closer cooperation on ending cross-Channel immigration in small boats, something seen as crucial to Conservative electoral fortunes.

The UK is also hopeful that the Windsor pact will help deepen ties with the US, which has expressed interest in investing in Northern Ireland. President Joe Biden has been considering a visit in April to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the region’s peace treaty.

Perhaps most importantly, Spisak said, Sunak “can now claim the biggest prize at home: the electoral advantage of getting the unfinished business of Brexit done.”

(Updates with Sunak comments starting in fourth paragraph.)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.