Tory leadership race: what positions have the candidates taken on Brexit and Northern Ireland?

In 2019, Boris Johnson promised to “Get Brexit Done”. Fast forward three years and Johnson is on his way out, the UK and the EU are still embroiled in disputes over arrangements for Northern Ireland and some leadership hopefuls vowed to “Get Brexit Re-Done”. Amid the uncertainty over who will be the UK’s next Prime Minister, one thing is clear: whoever wins the leadership race in a matter of weeks will have to deal with the Northern Ireland issue one way or another.

Last month, the government introduced the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which, if passed, could override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This provocation was met with unified resistance from EU member states, who backed fresh infringement proceedings against the UK. In its characteristically optimistic spirit, the EU still believes a negotiated solution is possible with genuine political will.

The Northern Ireland issue, though domestically and internationally significant, is unlikely to be the defining issue of the leadership contest. Fiscal policy will be the dividing line heading into the second round of the leadership contest, where Sunak and Truss will fight to win the hearts and minds of around 160,000 Tory party members.

Rishi Sunak

Having campaigned for Leave in 2016, Sunak is the only original Brexiteer left in the race. Writing in the Telegraph, he promised a review of all 2,400 laws transferred over to the UK, and have recommendations on whether each law should be scrapped or reformed within his first 100 days in the job.

The piece failed to mention the Protocol at all, instead focusing on specific measures he would introduce to maximise the benefits of Brexit. While neither candidate appears to be straying too far from the government’s position on Northern Ireland, some believe that Sunak could be the best hope for any negotiated solution in the future.

Liz Truss

From Remainer to Brexit-backer, Truss has been on quite a political journey. Over the last few weeks, she has seen off Brexiteers Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt to secure the backing of the right wing of the Tory party and position herself as the “Brexit delivery Prime Minister”.

As Foreign Secretary, she was responsible for the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and remains intent on breaking the deadlock through unilateral means if necessary. However appealing this position may be to a predominately pro-Brexit party membership, a key watch will be whether she can get this piece of legislation through Parliament in the autumn.

Reactions on the continent

Many politicians on the continent, not least the EU’s former Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, hope that Johnson’s ousting and a new leader will mark a genuine turning point in relations between the two blocs. While a significant policy shift looks unlikely for now, a personality change could prove pivotal. Yet domestic political challenges means that both Truss and Sunak will be under pressure to maintain a firm position. To echo the words of prominent Dutch MEP Guy Verhofstadt, things can only get better – can’t they?

Political consultancy

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