Rishi Sunak will take the biggest political risk of his premiership so far if – as expected – he goes ahead with a plan next week to settle the bitter Brexit row with the EU over Northern Ireland trade.
The British prime minister is supposed to be a politician defined by his reticence, but he appears determined to confront Tory Eurosceptics by reaching a compromise with Brussels on the Northern Ireland protocol.
“The biggest gamble of his career? It’s his first political gamble,” said Lord Peter Mandelson, former Northern Ireland Labor secretary and EU commissioner.
It will cost Sunak little political capital. This is, after all, a prime minister whose party trails the opposition Labor by 20 points and whose MPs are in constant turmoil. Former prime minister Boris Johnson, who agreed the controversial protocol with Brussels, is waiting in the wings.
But the return on that political capital will be worth it, according to his allies. They believe a deal would end years of acrimony in UK-EU relations and deliver immediate economic and diplomatic wins.
Things could still unfold. But Sunak, who travels to Munich on Saturday for some intense European diplomacy, hopes to present the deal to the cabinet next Tuesday and then to MPs.
The biggest test is whether the deal convinces the DUP to end its boycott of the Stormont assembly. With the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday peace agreement approaching, this would be a huge political victory in itself.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, said on Friday that progress had been made but more was needed. Sunak can’t be sure what the unionists will do. “The DUP does not speak with one voice,” said one British minister.
But even if the DUP’s Stormont exclusion remains – a scenario Sunak is desperate to avoid – the prime minister still sees gains from a deal, even if it means a battle with Tory MPs on the European Research Group in his favor Brexit.
“The ERGs are a diminished force, he can afford to take them on,” said a pro-EU former Tory minister. “An intra-party victory is needed. He doesn’t seem to be being pushed by an ERG/DUP axis.’ Sunak, accused of being “weak” by Labor, will be tested in the race.
The big win, however, would be improved relations with Britain’s neighbors after years of mistrust. Sunak will discuss the diplomatic wrap around the deal in talks with EU leaders in Munich on Saturday.
The row over the protocol has strained the relationship with the bloc and created “collateral damage”, an EU diplomat said. This includes the UK’s participation in Horizon, the €96 billion scientific research program involving more than 40 countries, which was foreseen in the Brexit agreement.
UK universities fear they will lose staff and fall behind global competition if they cannot rejoin the scheme, but EU officials believe Britain’s return to Horizon will follow an agreement on the protocol.
Britain and the EU are likely to start exploring other areas for closer cooperation, including defense and energy, which could reduce prices for electricity and gas imported into the UK via subsea interconnections.
Georgina Wright, of the Institut Montaigne think-tank in Paris, said the EU was open to these ideas. “A better relationship at EU level paves the way for more bilateral ties. But it depends on whether the UK Conservative government wants to make things better.”
European Commission officials said trade would be normalized if there was an atmosphere of mutual trust. The Brexit trade and cooperation agreement guaranteed the two sides would maintain a “level playing field” and consult on changes to regulations.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron, who has taken a hard line on the protocol, is hosting Sounac at a UK-France summit in Paris next month. His cooperation to tackle the flow of migrants across the Channel is vital to help deliver on Mr Sunak’s promise to ‘stop the boats’.
“The case for getting this deal and taking it forward seems overwhelming,” said Lord Kim Darroch, Britain’s former ambassador to the EU. “It will make a real, positive, difference to Northern Ireland. He will live up to Sunak’s claim to being a problem solver. It will bring us back to the Horizon Europe programme, which is vital for UK universities.
“It will improve the UK-EU atmosphere and pave the way for further deals to free up trade and travel between the UK and the EU. And it will put a stop to UK-US relations.”
Mandelson agreed, saying a deal could pave the way for US President Joe Biden to come to Belfast for events marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and then go to London for a state visit.
He said Joe Kennedy, the scion of the Kennedy dynasty appointed by Biden as economic envoy to Northern Ireland, would be “very important” in bringing inward investment to the region.
In recent days Britain has been sorting out its differences with the EU to try to forge a fresh start in relations seven years after the Brexit vote.
Last week the UK paid a £2.3bn fine to Brussels for lax customs controls on Chinese goods entering the EU’s single market while Britain was still a member of the bloc.
Meanwhile, the government also said it would make it easier for EU citizens to stay in the country, dropping a court case that had angered many of the bloc’s member states.
After the deep freeze that prevailed in UK-EU relations during the Johnson era, Sunak could be the British prime minister to bring about the great thaw. The prize is great, but so is the stake.