While all eyes were on Boris Johnson’s angry digressions about Downing Street corridors in front of the Privileges Committee, the real action was unfolding in the voting lobbies.
Yesterday, MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of the so-called “Stormont Brake” – a key part of Rishi Sunak’s renegotiated Brexit deal with the EU.
The final vote of 515 for and just 29 against indicates that there is near unanimous support for the “Windsor Framework”, which Sunak claims removes the majority of checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland while allowing the province to diverge from EU regulations.
Where things get interesting, though, is when you look at who the 29 naysayers are. They include veterans of the European Research Group (ERG) like Bill Cash, Mark Francois and Peter Bone – terminal troublemakers who gained outsize prominence during Theresa May’s difficult tenure – and “big beasts” like Iain Duncan Smith, Priti Patel, Liz Truss and Johnson.
Indeed, Truss’s announcement that she intended to vote against the deal may be one reason why the rebellion was so small. Few regard her involvement in a political project as a recommendation these days. The rest, who used to wield so much influence from the backbenches, have also been consigned to irrelevance – and that is a personal victory for Sunak.
So how has he achieved what three of his predecessors could not? Compared to Johnson’s populism and Truss’s hostility, one suspects that Sunak made a better negotiating partner for the EU, enabling him to secure concessions where the others had failed. Tidy technocrat meets unbending bureaucracy – a match made in business school.
It’s also clear that Sunak has substantially improved party discipline, albeit from a low base.
He deserves credit. But perhaps his greatest political asset, when it comes to Brexit at least, is the passage of time. It’s been six years since the decision to leave the EU, and many have lost the will to fight. Battle-scarred by half a decade of ideological warfare, all sides have emerged from their trenches to engage in dry dispatch box exchanges in a political no man’s land (and yes, I do mean Prime Minister’s Questions).
As shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer wanted Britain to remain in the single market. Now he commands his troops to back a deal that effectively takes Northern Ireland out of it. The former leader of the ERG, Steve Baker, used to revel in his “Brexit hardman” image. Now he’s a government minister who speaks sensitively about mental health. Everyone else is sick of the sight of Francois and wants it all to go away.
But apathy can be dangerous in politics, and just because Sunak has conjured a consensus out of boredom, it doesn’t mean his deal is perfect. The DUP do not believe it completely removes the trade border in the Irish Sea that Brexit created, and have withheld their votes. They surely have a point that Sunak cannot claim to have restored the UK’s internal market while Northern Ireland’s businesses remain subject to rules that do not apply in the rest of the UK.
Nevertheless, with a huge parliamentary endorsement following a successful Budget, the Government seems at last to be leaving its chaotic past behind.
And though the fate of the Conservative Party’s own walking memento mori, Boris Johnson, is currently in the hands of the Privileges Committee, his final humiliation may be that it was Rishi Sunak who got Brexit done.
Alys Denby is deputy editor of ‘CapX’, a publication from the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank