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A softening of the Brexit mentality was on show this week

“Dear Rishi.” With two words during the unveiling on Monday of the Windsor Framework, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen captured the change in the tone of relations between Britain and the European Union since Sunak entered 10 Downing Street.

The difference is as night and day compared to the rapport, or stark lack of one, when Boris Johnson was the British prime minister and relations soured. Of the two men Johnson was meant to have the personal touch, the charisma. Sunak was supposed to be the bland technocrat.

Yet the current prime minister’s seemingly genuine personal connection with von der Leyen was on full display in the Windsor Guildhall. Its correlation with obtaining an apparently workable deal appears to have prompted a round of soul-searching in Britain about whether the country was, in fact, on the wrong path with its past aggressive approach to the EU.

An arresting display of this apparent volte face in British thinking came in the form of an interview to BBC’s Newsnight on Monday night with Steve Baker, a high profile minister in the Northern Ireland Office and a self-styled Brexit hardman.

As a previous chairman of the Eurosceptic group of Tory backbenchers in the European Research Group, Baker helped to topple Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, for not pursuing a sufficiently hard Brexit. He was no friend to Ireland during that period, a proponent of taking the hardest line possible with Britain’s bewildered neighbour to the west.

Yet on Monday Baker choked back tears as he revealed live on BBC that the strain of his political activity over the past seven years caused a breakdown in his mental health. “The beard, the jewellery, is about me and my recovery,” he said, sweeping his hand down his body to emphasise his changed physical appearance.

He described how the strain of his involvement in Brexit and domestic political issues meant he “couldn’t go on” in November 2021, a time when the EU and UK were deadlocked in enmity under Johnson. “The way I’ve led rebellions, no one should have to do,” Baker said, his voice cracking.

Talking up the Windsor Framework, he said: “If only everyone will read the text and think seriously about what an amazing achievement this is, what an incredible opportunity it provides… to move beyond this awful populism that we’ve suffered.”

He continued: “Just be sensible and grown up, do the right thing by 1.9 million people [of Northern Ireland], and the ripple effects for everybody else – you bet I’m emotional. This bookends a seven-year chapter of my life I’ll be glad to close.”

As a piece of real-life political drama it was an extraordinary moment. As a window into the changing attitudes among many Brexiteers, it was even more telling.

While Sunak will take all the credit for changing the tone of Britain’s relations with the EU, the subtle shift in emphasis actually started under his immediate predecessor, the much-maligned Liz Truss. Her disastrous 44-day tenure will be remembered mostly for almost crashing Britain’s financial system. Yet that whopper clouds out the fact that despite her public insistence that she would take a hard line with Brussels, behind the scenes the tone was already softening.

Baker first apologised for his conduct towards Ireland in October last year, when he was in ministerial office under Truss. The Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, and James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, were credited by a Number 10 spokesman on Tuesday for forging relationships with EU officials that were “central to unlocking key aspects [of the deal] at a personal level”. Both were also Truss appointees. They got their mandate from her. Sunak left them in place.

Current deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, David Davis and Steve Barclay, all former Brexit secretaries and committed Brexiteers, wrote on Tuesday in the Daily Mail that the deal with the EU is a “game -changer”. They weren’t throwing rose petals at the EU, but neither the usual brickbats.

All this creates a dilemma for the man ducking about in the background, apparently scheming for a way back in to cause trouble for Sunak. Johnson had, it was rumoured, hoped to use the prime minister’s negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol as a way to open up another seam of dissent.

Yet the warmth with which the Windsor Framework has been received, even among many Brexiteers, limits Johnson’s room for manoeuvre. How intriguing if it is Sunak who finally “gets Brexit done”, instead of Johnson, the man who first personified the promise.


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