MAIL ON SUNDAY COMMENT: Negotiate with the EU in haste, Rishi – and repent at your leisure
At the point where Brexit and the Northern Irish peace process meet there is a sort of whirlpool of conflicting forces, like the one in the Gulf of Corryvreckan off Scotland’s west coast.
It is very hard to navigate, even for the brave and experienced. In 1998, the Good Friday peace agreement cunningly slipped past a number of dangerous issues by putting them off into the future or pretending they had been solved when they had not.
But the special arrangements for the province outside the EU, dreamed up to avoid a new clash with Dublin, revived these buried issues.
In fact, trying to sort out anything to do with Northern Ireland is like trying to triumph over a Rubik’s Cube, in the dark, underwater and with one hand tied behind your back.
Famously, the issue was what did for Theresa May and drove her from Downing Street. Equally famously, Boris Johnson, when he took over from her, believed that he had, by sheer boldness and force of personality, overcome it.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has begun to find out just how tricky and complex the matter is
But France and Germany have been heavily engaged in seeking a new deal for months now. The EU is still discontented. And there are some in British politics who think that discontent should be soothed by revisiting the deal now.
As we see this weekend, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has begun to find out just how tricky and complex the matter is.
Perhaps he should have consulted Mr Johnson before plunging into it. The eleventh-hour cancellation of a planned meeting between the King and EC President Ursula von der Leyen is disturbing.
Involving the monarch in such a contentious area of policy is constitutionally dangerous, especially if things later unravel.
And suggestions that a deal might have been called ‘the Windsor Agreement’ smack of the sort of spin indulged in by the Blair government. Will it deserve such a title?
Key questions must be asked. Under this plan, for instance, will Northern Ireland’s manufacturers be making goods to comply with UK laws and regulations or EU ones?
If they must comply with EU rules, then either the rest of the UK mirrors the EU rules – which is not Brexit. Or we do not, in which case the UK is split and part of it remains in the orbit of Brussels.
Another test is whether the ‘concessions’ are now formally under our control. Or have they been granted by the EU, which will retain ultimate authority and therefore the right to withdraw them?
If so, they would keep powerful leverage over this country, which they would be very likely to use.
The eleventh-hour cancellation of a planned meeting between the King and EC President Ursula von der Leyen is disturbing
The question which must worry government supporters is this: Why is Mr Sunak rushing in where experts fear to tread?
Why is he risking a possible confrontation with the Democratic Unionist Party, which is not reluctant to use its considerable power to prevent any arrangement in Northern Ireland that it does not want, and which has significant allies among Tory MPs?
Most of the British public are uninterested in the Northern Irish conundrum and do not regard it as an urgent problem which must be solved immediately.
Local elections in May are already likely to be a nerve-racking experience for the Tories.
Yet if they concentrate on those matters which their supporters truly care about, especially migration and crime, they may yet claw back millions of votes. Sir Keir Starmer is not Tony Blair.
The coming Election is not yet lost. But this is not the way for Mr Sunak to win it.