Brexit: Rishi Sunak's Windsor Framework suggests a new relationship with EU and offers hope Tories can win next general election – Murdo Fraser

Brexit was never my thing. In common with most Scots Tories, and as an economic liberal, I never saw the sense of disrupting trading arrangements between ourselves in the UK and our nearest neighbours.

That said, as a democrat, I accept the result of referendums. The majority of the British people voted, albeit by a narrow margin, to leave the EU in 2016. I would have preferred if we had then moved towards a European Free Trade Agreement-style arrangement but that was not to be.

Brexit has caused disruption for British businesses, particularly for those involved in exporting to the EU. But it is not the Humza Yousaf of British politics – it is unfair to blame it for everything that goes wrong.

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Treat with caution claims that a lack of labour, particularly in lower-skilled sectors such as agriculture, food production and hospitality, are solely caused by Brexit. Other European countries have similar challenges, as indeed do other developed economies elsewhere in the world. Such shortages are as much a product of post-Covid shrinkages in the overall labour supply, as being caused by the end of free movement.

Nor should we dismiss some of the opportunities that Brexit provides. Removing the tampon tax by adjusting VAT rates and the creation of freeports were only made possible because of the freedom from EU tax rules.

New trade deals, particularly with dynamic markets like India, are much more exciting prospects without having to consider the interests of two dozen other EU countries. Brexit may, in the long run, provide greater advantages to the UK economy than it would currently appear.

But there was no positive way to look at the border in the Irish Sea that Brexit caused for Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish Protocol was a festering sore. The inability to agree a new set of arrangements with the EU was a barrier to the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. It threatened the historic peace of the Good Friday Agreement. It was the most unwelcome legacy left by the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson to his one-time Chancellor and Rishi Sunak’s most acid test.

Last week the Prime Minister pulled off what appeared to be the impossible feat of agreeing a new set of arrangements with Brussels which even some of the most ardent of Conservative Eurosceptics found difficult to criticise. It was reminiscent of that moment of cinematic history when the centurion John Wayne utters the line, “truly, this man was the Son of God”, to see Steve Baker, once the unbending leader of the European Research Group, evangelising for the new Windsor Framework.

Rishi Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shake hands after negotiating the Windsor Framework (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)Rishi Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shake hands after negotiating the Windsor Framework (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shake hands after negotiating the Windsor Framework (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Remarkably he was on the same side as the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen. Given all the twists and turns, all the bile and bad faith, that we have had with Brexit since the referendum vote nearly seven years ago, who would have predicted such lions laying down with such lambs?

The DUP in Northern Ireland will take some weeks yet before they decide whether or not to support the Windsor Framework. It will require a significant degree of political courage on their part to embrace it. But they have not yet defaulted to saying “no”. They need to reflect that there is no prospect of a better deal being negotiated, and if they wish to see Stormont reactivated, this is the only way it is going to happen.

The Windsor Framework is good news not just for Northern Ireland, but also for British relations with the EU more generally. Already there is discussion about UK participation in EU scientific and research programmes. There is a live conversation about working together with the EU to combat illegal immigration. It all augurs well for a UK-EU relationship which will be to the mutual benefit of both.

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None of this will, of course, satisfy nationalists who continue to argue that Scotland should break from one union to join another. Leaving aside whether EU entry would even be possible in such circumstances, it is by any measure an extraordinary proposition that we should disrupt unfettered trading arrangements with the peoples of England, Wales and Northern Ireland in order to smooth trade with the EU, given trade with the rest of the UK is worth three times to the Scottish economy than that with Europe.

It is the economic equivalent of dealing with a sore toe by amputating a leg. As the outgoing First Minister’s eminent economic adviser Professor Mark Blyth, of Brown University, put it, independence would be “Brexit times ten”.

Nor should nationalists try and claim that the Windsor Framework means that Scotland is somehow being put at a disadvantage. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with the EU and, for that reason, a set of bespoke trading arrangements for the province were always going to be necessary. The troubled history of Ireland – the bloody conflict, the many thousands dead – makes comparisons with our situation here in Scotland inappropriate, if not distasteful.

Opinion polls still suggest that Rishi Sunak has a mountain to climb when it comes to winning the next general election. But with a significant diplomatic victory in the bag, and with the economic outlook for the UK improving by the week, the prospects certainly seem to be improving. And behind the headline numbers, those Labour figures look soft.

What the Windsor Framework demonstrates is that Rishi Sunak is a serious and credible politician who is winning the respect of world leaders. He is putting the fundamentals of the country on the right track. He is tackling the most intractable of problems head on.

Winning the Conservatives another term in office remains a tall order. But if the nightmare of the Northern Ireland Protocol can be soothed then we Tories have reason to dare to dream.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife



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