Brexit story ends with a whimper. But anti-Sunak ultras plant seeds of revival

The “Ayes” were 515 and the “Nos” 29 in the latest (and last?) vote on the structures that will determine the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU. “A chapter is over” heralded former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith. After years of acrimony, the day’s deep symbolism was not lost on attendees.

Perhaps it was incongruous that Britain’s journey to post-Brexit peace had culminated in a vote on that most trivial of Westminster procedure: a statutory instrument. Forget Brexit’s greatest legislative hits like the “Letwin amendment” or the “Benn Act” — on Wednesday, Brexit was waving Westminster goodbye with a whimper.

But this was no ordinary SI. Yesterday’s vote was on a portion of prime minister’s Northern Ireland Protocol resolution: the so-called “Stormont brake”. The procedure will allow Northern Ireland’s assembly (if sitting) to object to new EU rules being imposed by petitioning Westminster to act against Brussels.

The “brake’s” formal status as a mere statutory instrument meant the order paper apportioned MPs just 90 minutes of debate. Although as leader of the DUP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson pointed out, this was more of an “indicative vote” on the whole Windsor Framework. The phrase will have conjured memories among MPs of pouring over Brexit options at the apex of the constitutional crisis under Theresa May. This time, however, there could be no doubting MPs’ intentions: they wanted Brexit done.

In fact, Wednesday’s debate shows just how far British politics has travelled on Brexit since May’s tenure. Neither the Conservative party’s 22 Brexit purists or the united forces of the DUP were enough to hold back the new steamrollering consensus.

Crucially, the government did not have to rely on opposition votes to pass the legislation — which a rebellion by 34 or more Conservative MPs yesterday would have ensured. That the government avoided such an awkward situation is a triumph that belongs, above all, to the prime minister.

His gamble in bringing hardcore Eurosceptics like Steve Baker, Chris Heaton-Harris and Suella Braverman into the cabinet had succeeded in isolating ERG enemies. The gambit ensured that grumbles on Wednesday morning failed to materialise into a 100-strong Brexit rebellion of old. In the end, one can only speculate as to the mood of the sparsely-populated “No” lobby.

There was of course Boris Johnson, midway through his grilling at the hands of the privileges committee. He wants to be the candidate of the party’s Brexit ultras — but even he must have been surprised at the thinness of this clique under Sunak. The ERG stalwarts in Mark Francois and David Jones were present; still, they had roundly failed to get the “spartan” gang back together. The vote was a clear signal that the ERG wields a fraction of the power it once did in the Conservative party.

Sunak’s most virulent opponents in Sir Jake Berry and Simon Clarke assembled duly. Iain Duncan Smith and Liz Truss were there too. The former prime minister was the only MP who voted Remain in 2016 to occupy the “No” lobby.

Then there were the DUP MPs, led by Sir Jeffrey, forced to stand shoulder to shoulder with Johnson, the NI Protocol’s progenitor and cause of their discontents. A relative moderate, Sir Jeffrey was widely thought to have wanted to support the framework. But it appears the DUP’s internal dynamics and the threat of electoral besiegement from external unionist forces had impelled him into opposition.

The PM will hope that the Windsor framework might work to cautiously shunt unionism away from its Brexit traumas. It was probably too much to ask for power-sharing to return immediately after the “brake’s” announcement. But with the DUP having been seen to sure up its ethno-national right flank on Wednesday, a path back to power-sharing may slowly begin to form. If there comes an opportunity for the DUP to apply the brake while Stormont is not sitting, political pressure might begin acting in the opposite direction. In time, there may even be room for negotiations with the UK government, who could offer the DUP more assurances that Westminster would always trigger the brake when requested.

But the DUP’s Brexit predicament aside, Sunak’s 22 Conservative rebels could prove a tricky awkward squad down the line. Indeed, with names like Priti Patel, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Simon Clarke and Sir Jake Berry — this was not a list of the Conservative party’s most doctrinaire, DUP-loving Leavers. It is an inventory, instead, of Rishi Sunak’s most implacable adversaries.

“Unite or die”, Sunak told Conservative MPs upon becoming prime minister. Some, still, refuse to get the memo.

It means that while animosities have been buried on Brexit, that Sunak has 20-or-so Conservative MPs guaranteed to go against him on every crunch vote narrows his room for manoeuvre significantly. Indeed, on Wednesday only 12 more MPs would have been needed for the PM to rely on Labour votes.

In the end, this was probably a battle the ERG was destined to lose. British politics has calmed down greatly since Sunak took over in October. There has been no self-inflicted market meltdown; the PM’s overseen much-improved relations with Brussels; a budget has come and gone; and the gap with Labour is tightening. This was only ever going to be a statement of intent from the PM’s most unwavering opponents.

But there is a broader point here. For as the prime minister gathers momentum within his party, the Conservative right will slowly begin to look to the future. Despite recent political wins, there is every chance that the party will be looking for a new leader in the next few years and, unlike October’s contest, it is a choice that will fall ultimately to party members. This crucial constituency will look fondly upon yesterday’s rebellion.

So as Patel, Truss, Johnson, Clarke and Berry gushed to the “No” lobby on Wednesday, a starting gun may just have been fired in the race to become standard bearer of the Conservative right. Positioning within the faction — and a betrayal narrative on the Union and Brexit — will be crucial in any future leadership contest.