The “full Windsor” is a necktie knot used by well-dressed English gentlemen. It is difficult to do, can’t be rushed and is favoured by those who prefer bespoke to off-the peg suits. But ultimately it provides for a broader, better balanced tie triangle. Named after the Duke of Windsor (Edward VIII) it even has the added cachet of British Royalty.
Rishi Sunak’s full “Windsor Framework” is the political equivalent of this sartorial technique. Aimed at solving the knotty problem of the Northern Ireland protocol, it provides a new, individually tailored approach to Brexit. The Prime Minister’s hope is that once in place, this particular triangle between Belfast, London and Brussels will be difficult to unpick.
King Charles (the Duke of Windsor’s great nephew, and an equally natty dresser) gave his own Royal seal of approval to the new diplomatic deal by inviting European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen to tea in his Castle.
The King also has fond memories of Windsor Guildhall, which is where he tied the knot of a different kind with Camilla Parker-Bowles in 2005. A similarly civil ceremony took place between the Prime Minister and Von der Leyen yesterday, in the biggest outbreak of UK-EU harmony since the Leave vote seven long years ago.
The “speak now or forever hold your peace” moment will last for a few weeks, with No 10 signalling it would allow parties “proper time” to digest the agreement before bringing forward a Parliamentary vote.
So far, the DUP is withholding judgement until they’ve seen the detailed legal text, and in turn Tory backbench hardliners are going to take their lead from their fellow Brexiteers in the province.
But there’s undoubtedly a lot of good news in this deal for the Ulster unionists. Many will welcome the technical solutions on smoother trade between the GB and Northern Ireland, as well as alignment on VAT, state aid and other areas.
Most significant of all is the “Stormont brake” that will allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to stop any new EU rules they don’t like. Although it can’t apply to “trivial” issues and has to be a device of last resort, it does enshrine something the DUP has long wanted: an effective veto for a third of Stormont’s politicians.
In enshrining and extending the vetos included in the Good Friday Agreement, Sunak and the EU have used that famous phrase “Ulster says No” to try to engineer an “Ulster says Yes” to their Brexit deal.
This is all a far cry from the botched deal hammered out by Johnson in his haste to “get Brexit done” after the 2019 general election. In November that year, the former PM told a businessman in Northern Ireland who was worried about extra customs forms: “tell them to ring up the prime minister and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin”. In August 2020, Johnson doubled down by saying “there will be no border down the Irish Sea – over my dead body”. Yet that’s exactly what has since happened, as checks were indeed applied to goods from Britain.
Johnson is still very much alive, even though his premiership was killed off by his own MPs last year. And it remains to be seen just how much trouble he is prepared to cause in pursuing his vendetta against Sunak. One key rallying point for the ex-PM could be Sunak’s decision to finally ditch the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill that would unilaterally impose trade rules between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
For now, he’s an absent rebel. The Commons was more packed even than on a Budget day and there were only two missing faces: Johnson and Truss.
It was striking that every “win” Sunak listed also highlighted every “loss” signed into law by Johnson. This was formal, written confirmation that the “oven ready deal” was always dangerously undercooked and posed a political health hazard.
But every time the PM praised his own deal, he also laid bare the continued flaws in Brexit itself.
When he talked about “smooth trade” between Britain and Northern Ireland, when he talked about ending “bureaucracy” for businesses, about ending problems from parcels to pets, he only underscored the litany of disrupted trade and new red tape imposed by leaving the EU. The Windsor Framework is a deal most UK businesses would give their eye-teeth for.
While the EU has given a lot of ground on the “Stormont brake”, Brussels has got its way in asking for the bill to be dumped – and that’s a clear poke in the eye for Johnson, who only last week said it was his preferred way forward.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was right to say his own party’s fears about the half-baked deal had been “vindicated”. His warnings about the possible need for “clarification, reworking or changes” did not sound like implacable opposition.
If the DUP eventually approves this deal, Sunak will be able to boast that not only is he a better dealmaker than Johnson, he is a better guarantor of the Union than the man who effectively threw Unionists under a bus for his own ends. His supporters hope he’s showing he’s not just a more competent technocrat, but a better politician.
The bigger prize for the PM is that this breakthrough can revive his own premiership, but that’s a much tougher ask. His new deal unlocks billions in Horizon science funding, but it’s unclear how much it will unlock French co-operation on Channel migrants.
With the polls as they are, his remains a government of damage limitation. Sunak is trying to limit the damage caused by Liz Truss’s bonkers mini-Budget. He may try to limit the damage of the Ukraine war by extending energy bill help in the Budget.
Limiting the damage to the English economy caused by Brexit is not as easy as signing a deal with Brussels for the one part of the UK that has access to the single market. But the real win for Sunak may be that he’s finally weaning his party off its addiction to Boris Johnson.
The PM’s promise to bring “integrity, professionalism and accountability” to No 10 has been much mocked of late. But those three words certainly apply to this deal, and stand in great contrast to his predecessor’s conduct on Brexit.
As he sat down to full-throated Tory cheers that no PM has heard in the Commons for a long time, the impeccably dressed Sunak adjusted his tie. And his ties to Tory backbenchers now look stronger than they have since he became leader.