Talks to rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol and finally solve one of the knottiest problems in British politics began in the sunny climes of Sharm el-Sheikh and ended in a chilly Windsor on Monday afternoon.
Rishi Sunak made normalising relations with the EU one of his top diplomatic priorities, seeking to draw a stark contrast with the aggression of the Boris Johnson era. But in truth, the process of fixing Northern Ireland’s trade and sovereignty complaints started some time before the current Prime Minister took office.
Boris Johnson, who has so far remained silent on Mr Sunak’s deal with Brussels, was the first of Britain’s succession of recent prime ministers to make it clear that the status quo in Northern Ireland was broken – notwithstanding the fact that his own “get Brexit done” deal was directly responsible.
Serving ministers have piled praise on the former leader, crediting him with starting to break the deadlock with his tough-talking and in particular the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which showed the EU that the UK was serious about taking action. When Brussels officials warned this would spark a “trade war”, their British counterparts responded that that was better than the “war war” which would break out if Northern Ireland’s peace process collapsed.
Credit has also gone, perhaps surprisingly, to Liz Truss. In his private conversations with key stakeholders, Mr Sunak is understood to have gone out of his way to praise his immediate predecessor for beginning the thaw in relations which resulted in a deal this week.
But it was Mr Sunak’s meeting with Ursula von der Leyen at the G20 summit in Egypt last autumn which kicked off the intensive phase of talks on how exactly to fix the Protocol. “We went in with a mindset that not everyone can get everything they want, but everyone will get everything they need,” one negotiator said – a retreat from the maximalist demands put forward by Mr Johnson previously.
EU officials suggested Mr Sunak and his team had been far more receptive to Brussels’ demands, including greater data sharing. One said that under the current Prime Minister, “The IT access question was solved which is quite a structural one – it’s by getting the data quickly that we can assess whether or not there is a risk to the internal market. So if you fix that then you work out what data is being exchanged, that puts us in the position to tell our member states we think we have the tools to protect the internal market.
“Secondly, you will recall that it’s been a fair amount of time that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill hasn’t made progress in the House of Lords, that was a signal for us that was also important, and generally in the discussions is the sense there was a greater sensitivity to what we thought was necessary to protect the EU’s internal market.”
Many of the technical details were hammered out weeks ago, including the system of “green lanes” which reduces the number of checks needed on goods crossing the Irish Sea, but political challenges such as how Northern Ireland’s politicians would be entitled to a veto over new EU legislation remained until almost the last minute.
A source close to the negotiations said: “These things are gradual discussions that continue into the small hours in windowless buildings, with dubious sandwiches with needless amounts of egg involved.”
Government insiders grew increasingly frustrated with media reports that the deal had been finalised; even last week, when the No 10 “grid” was cleared of all other major announcements to give space for an agreement, those involved were unsure when or even if it would happen.
“I didn’t know it was definitely done until von der Leyen said, I’m coming over,” a minister said. Another source added: “On the day the deal was done some of us went to bed at 2am or 3am. People who have been saying this deal was done two weeks ago should speak to our spouses. It’s not been sitting there finished.”
The deal may be done, but it is not over the line yet. Mr Sunak’s allies are under no illusions that he will not be able to declare victory until the DUP and Tory eurosceptics have signed up to his plans; but for now, they are elated. One source close to the Prime Minister said: “People have criticised his political ability, but now he’s found a solution to what in our party is the number one most difficult issue.”
A Cabinet minister dismissed the carping from those who are still quibbling over the details, saying: “It’s like they’ve said you can’t make a man fly, we’re showing them we’ve put someone in the sky then they turn around and ask – well, what colour is his cape?”