Northern Ireland

Alex Kane: Rishi Sunak might prove a more dependable ally than his predecessors

Rishi Sunak was elected Conservative Party leader
Rishi Sunak was elected Conservative Party leader

WHAT the Conservative Party needs right now is a lengthy period of stability, something it hasn’t had since David Cameron announced the Brexit referendum date in February 2016.

Cameron fuelled the instability when he resigned after losing the referendum, leading to four successors in six years: Theresa May (ideologically unstable), Boris Johnson (narcissistically unstable), Liz Truss (just unstable) and now Rishi Sunak (on whom we still await a verdict).

Sunak, like his immediate predecessors, faces a mountain of problems. What undermined them was an ongoing civil war on the parliamentary backbenches - sometimes the front benches as well - as various factions continued a battle that can trace its roots to Edward Heath’s decision to take the United Kingdom into the Common Market in January 1973, without a referendum.

In a statement on Sunday, following his decision to withdraw from the leadership contest, Sunak praised Boris Johnson for having "delivered Brexit". The problem, as Sunak surely knows, is that Johnson didn’t, in fact, get Brexit done. He left Northern Ireland partly within the parameters of the EU when he approved the NI Protocol: something which Sunak himself voted for. So, he faces the same particular challenge as Johnson and Truss: can he resolve the protocol problem to the satisfaction of the DUP (and unionism generally) without unravelling it altogether and triggering a massive showdown with the EU?

I don’t know at this point. But I do know this, the DUP has been let down by Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, David Frost (the UK’s former chief negotiator) and a host of ERG members who tossed aside all previous promises not to isolate Northern Ireland and voted in favour of the protocol. The DUP - stupidly in my opinion - placed a lot of trust in those who had made the most noise about being on their side. Some even told me over the past few days that they hoped Johnson would come back, albeit on the basis that "the devil you know".

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about the appointment of former ERG chairpersons Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker to the NIO and quoted an old DUP friend, “It looks good, but I’m minded of the saying that you can only be betrayed by supposed friends”. I agreed with him and suggested in subsequent interviews that unionists and loyalists shouldn’t get too carried away by the ERG ‘takeover’ of the NIO.

Neither of those men may still be in place in a few days’ time, after Sunak puts his new cabinet and ministerial team in place. And if he does change them, or leaves them in place, unionists will try and interpret what those changes or non-changes may mean for the protocol. My gut instinct, and it is only my gut instinct, is that Sunak is not a wild-eyed idealogue when it comes to the protocol: which means that I don’t think he will be making the sort of rash, DUP-pleasing statements that Johnson and Truss allowed to drop from their lips. Let them drop and then did very little when it came to follow-through.

But if he has the internal stability and a bit of space over the next few months I think Sunak could prove a much more reliable ally than his two immediate predecessors in particular. He isn’t as easy to read as Johnson and Truss, so unionists should approach him with some care. And he begins his prime ministerial career in quite a strong position, especially in terms of parliamentary party support. There is a clear sense across the party that it wants the ‘EU stuff’ shifted down the agenda--preferring solutions to more standoffs.

Sunak doesn't want the assembly to collapse and wants Joe Biden here next April for the 25th anniversary hoopla. He will listen to unionists. He will be mindful of what Steve Baker (who came out in support of him) said about unionist concerns. He recognises the problems Jeffrey Donaldson faces. But he won’t, I suspect, give in to threats: meaning that unionist strategy must become more subtle and nuanced.

My reading of Sunak is that he is probably much tougher than any Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher. He has huge challenges, and he’ll want to defy all immediate expectations. My advice to unionists: don’t dismiss him out of hand, don’t presume he won’t listen and don’t drown him with demands he can’t possibly meet.