Is Rishi Sunak Turning Into Theresa May Over Brexit?

The prime minister is going through the same agony as his predecessor.
Critics are pointing out the parallels between Rishi Sunak's position and Theresa May's in 2019
Critics are pointing out the parallels between Rishi Sunak's position and Theresa May's in 2019
Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

In a surprise development, Jacob Rees-Mogg made a good point last week.

The former cabinet minister and arch-Brexiteer pointed out the similarities between Rishi Sunak’s ongoing negotiations with the European Union and Theresa May’s when she was prime minister.

Speaking on his podcast, Rees-Mogg accused the PM of failing to square off the ERG group of eurosceptic Tory PMs and the Democratic Unionist Party ahead of the talks.

“I don’t know why so much political capital has been spent on something without getting the DUP and the ERG onside first,” the former Brexit opportunities minister said.

Rees-Mogg said it was “very similar to what happened with Theresa May”, where a policy would be presented in the hope that people would “conveniently fall in behind”.

“Life doesn’t work like that,” he rightly pointed out.

Sunak will obviously not like the comparison with May — who ultimately lost her job over her failure to reach a Brexit deal she could sell to her party — but the parallels between then and now are obvious.

A week ago, No.10 was briefing that a deal was all-but done and would be presented to parliament within days.

Seven days on, no agreement has been reached — and opposition to it among the ERG and DUP is hardening.

Adding fuel to the fire is Sunak’s intention to ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill — which would give the government the power to unilaterally rip up parts of the Brexit deal — as a gesture of goodwill towards Brussels.

This has angered many Tory MPs, including Boris Johnson, who introduced the legislation when he was PM.

Ever eager to make life difficult for his successor, Johnson told Sky News: “I think the best thing is to continue with the Northern Ireland [Protocol] Bill that we agreed.

“It is a very good bill, it fixes all the problems, it solves the problems we have in the Irish Sea, it solves the problems of paperwork, VAT and so on, it is an excellent Bill and doesn’t set up any other problems in the economy of the whole island of Ireland. So, I’d go with that one.”

Johnson’s mischief-making is yet another throwback to the May era, given he resigned as her foreign secretary over Brexit before committing himself to trashing her deal and bringing about her downfall.

Boris Johnson is trying to make as much trouble for Rishi Sunak as he did for Theresa May.
Boris Johnson is trying to make as much trouble for Rishi Sunak as he did for Theresa May.
Carl Court via Getty Images

One former Conservative adviser who worked with May in No.10 told HuffPost UK: “There are definitely parallels between Sunak’s situation and Theresa’s.

“One of them is that some people are using DUP support as an article of faith, so they are saying that they won’t sign up to any deal unless the DUP are happy with it. That is almost exactly what they said when Theresa was PM.

“There’s also a parallel in the fact that the prime minister is basically involved in a three-way negotiation with his own party, with politicians in Northern Ireland and also with the EU.

“And just like under Theresa, the European Commission will also be making their own assessment of the political strength of the prime minister and his ability to get parliamentary support for a deal.”

Ultimately, it was May’s failure to get her deal through the Commons which proved her undoing.

But unlike then, Labour now say they will vote for any deal Sunak presents to parliament, giving him enough votes to get it through, albeit at the risk of sparking a fresh Tory civil war.

“The reality is that there are only three things that can happen,” said the former May aide. “Rishi can push forward in the face of domestic opposition and he might need Labour votes to get it through, which is a bad place for him to be.

“He can go back to the EU and say I need more concessions, or he can just say we can’t deliver this and the deal’s off. Each of these options are invidious.”

It is understood that Sunak won significant concessions from the EU, not least the UK government’s ability to set VAT rates for Northern Ireland.

However, Sunak’s critics say any deal must remove the customs border which currently exists in the Irish Sea, while also ending the European Court of Justice’s role in overseeing the application of trade rules in Northern Ireland.

The problem for the prime minister is that these are demands which Brussels almost certainly cannot agree to.

“I wonder if the word ‘yes’ has been removed from the vocabulary of certain people in the Tory Party,” bemoaned the former May adviser.

“Changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol can only ever be a negotiated settlement. It is literally impossible to just write down a wish list and have that implemented, but some people are behaving as if you can.”

A former member of May’s cabinet said it was impossible for Sunak to satisfy the hardcore Brexiteers, so he shouldn’t bother trying.

“You can never give these people enough, that’s ultimately the situation,” he said. “There just has to come a point where a line is drawn.

“The difference this time is that Theresa never had Labour to back her up.

“That carries a risk for Rishi, but at least he would be able to get a deal through the Commons because he would also have the support of the majority of Conservative MPs.

“Some colleagues also need to realise that if this isn’t solved by this prime minister, it will be resolved under a Labour government and that is the worst case scenario.”

A Downing Street spokesperson said: “Negotiations are continuing so there isn’t a finalised deal for people to take a judgment on.”

The longer Sunak’s Brexit saga drags on, the more entrenched his opponents are becoming — and that spells major trouble for the prime minister.


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