Tim Bale asks why the response to the Windsor Framework from Sunak’s opponents in the Conservative Party appears to be more muted than many were expecting – and Boris Johnson was probably hoping.
Quite why Rishi Sunak regards ‘trees, plants, and seed potatoes’ (which, he reminded those listening to his speech celebrating the Windsor Framework, ‘will again be available in Northern Ireland’s garden centres’) as ‘quintessentially British’, we may never know. But most commentators seem persuaded that he has at least managed to reform the Northern Ireland Protocol without sparking a new round of bitter Tory infighting at Westminster and beyond.
More than that, and to borrow a phrase he himself artfully employed in the speech, Sunak may have ‘taken back control’ of the Conservative Party from the assorted rogues and renegades who’ve been desperately trying to chip away at his authority ever since he took over as leader back in October.
While the Prime Minister seems to have decided, once again, against explicitly calling out the biggest rogue and renegade of them all, Boris Johnson, he has effectively called his bluff. After spending the last week or so, telling ‘friends’ that he has his doubts about the wisdom of Sunak’s long-trailed compromise with the European Union, the former PM didn’t even bother to show up to hear him brief the Commons on it.
Johnson had also been sharing his dark forebodings with both the DUP and – supposedly more dangerously – with the Brexit ultras of the ERG. He will undoubtedly be disappointed, then, that both groups, and particularly the latter, seem, if not to have exactly welcomed the Windsor deal, to have declined to dismiss it out of hand.
Moreover, it looks more than possible that, once they’ve consulted their tame lawyers (and, just as importantly, got a sense of how the deal’s gone down with the grassroots and with their mates in the media), Mark Francois and co. may decide, like the much-softened former ‘hard man of Brexit’, Steve Baker, that they can live with it.
If they can, then Johnson will almost certainly pull back from calling on Sunak to ‘wave goodbye to Windsor’ in the same way as he called on Theresa May to ‘chuck Chequers’ – namely as a convenient means to snatch the crown from someone he regards as both an illegitimate usurper and as a politician without the chutzpah and the panache needed to turn round the Tories’ fortunes in time to win the next general election.
None of that means, of course, that Johnson will necessarily call it a day and give up on his ambition (or, as he sees it, his destiny) completely. But one thing you can say about him is that he knows when it’s best to reculer pour mieux sauter: witness his pulling out of the leadership last year and in 2016 after reluctantly deciding on both occasions that defeat was more likely than victory and that it was better to live to fight another day.
This raises a question, however. Johnson would surely be rallying the troops against the Framework if there were troops to rally. So why aren’t there? Or at least why aren’t there more than there appear to be? When it comes to waging war over Windsor, where, in other words, have all the Spartans gone?
In fact, it’s no great mystery. Just as they suddenly deserted their so-called friends in the DUP as soon as it became apparent, in the late autumn of 2019, that the Protocol was going to allow Johnson to sign the Withdrawal Agreement that had eluded his predecessor, the ERG’s ultras were never, in the end, going to let their oft-touted commitment to Ulster unionism take priority over their desire to ‘get Brexit done’ and so realise what their former icon Steve Baker refers to as ‘the full suite of opportunities open to us as an independent, sovereign nation’.
Polling suggests that, in and of itself, Brexit is no longer the trump card it was. Even some of its diehard advocates realise that, at least until some of its supposed benefits can be realised in the long term, in the short term, the government – economically, diplomatically and electorally – is now in the business of damage limitation.
UK science can’t seriously be expected forego all that Horizon funding if the country is to have any chance of remaining competitive in those sectors likely to dominate the economy of the future. Northern Ireland can’t be left in limbo if we want even the semblance of a special relationship with Joe Biden’s White House.
And the chances of ‘stopping the boats’ – by far the most challenging of the five achievements Sunak hopes to be able to trumpet to voters in 2024 – without French (and possibly wider EU) cooperation surely remain close to zero, new legislation and court victories on the Rwanda plan notwithstanding.
Just as importantly, voters would not have taken kindly to some kind of battle royal over Northern Ireland taking place within the Conservative Party and/or between the Commons and the Lords. It’s not just that the vast bulk of the electorate, being English, are almost certainly more concerned about the absence of tomatoes in their local supermarket than the absence of a functioning devolved government in Belfast. It’s that even the party’s Brexiteer ultras are well aware that their constituents have got far more pressing worries given both crumbling public services and the cost-of-living crisis that many of them are facing.
Moreover, it finally seems to have dawned on all but the most obtuse hardliner that, right now anyway, a modicum of competence rather than another dose of derring-do is what the country’s crying out for, and that means sticking with Rishi rather than twisting with Boris. As Jacob Rees Mogg himself has (albeit reluctantly) admitted, ‘We’ve just got to calm down and live with the leader we’ve got.’
By Tim Bale, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London, former Deputy Director, UK in a Changing Europe, and author of the forthcoming book The Conservative Party after Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation.