northern ireland border road sign

One of the criticisms of Rishi Sunak is that he is a detail jockey – that he becomes completely focused on the minutiae of policy, missing the big picture. As far as the proposed Windsor Framework is concerned, that understanding may be crucial for its success.

The framework – the proposed replacement for the unloved Northern Ireland protocol – is clever. As both the PM and EU president said again and again at yesterday’s brief press conference, the framework means all the food and drink in British supermarkets will now also be available in supermarkets in Northern Ireland.

Almost all real British politicians know the most enduringly popular British politician – Rt Hon Jim Hacker of Yes Minister – came to office on the back of his handling of an existential threat to the British banger. So sausages, and the need for them to be available everywhere in the UK, have a resonance far beyond the rational for those in high office. That’s why Sunak referenced them yesterday.

Back in the real world, seed potatoes, seeds and even trees will be similarly available across both islands. So too will medicines. The UK government will also have control over VAT and alcohol duty.

For the shopper in Northern Ireland, fed up with patchy availability of many products and the complete absence of some, it seems the deal will eliminate the latter problem.

The framework will not stop the out-of-stocks that continue to plague many stores on the British mainland. However, the remarkable shift in the tone of UK-EU relations augurs well for future progress on trade and elsewhere.

Gone is the snarling impatience that characterised Lord Frost’s dealings with the EU and the Johnson and Truss eras. In its place we have the delightful politesse of ‘Dear Rishi’ and ‘Ursula’, evidently civilised relationships that have been quickly forged in the shadow of the mutual interest created by the Ukraine war. Whatever else he has done for the food industry, the prime minister should be applauded for abandoning the braggadocio of his two predecessors and focusing on doing a decent job for his country.

Has he cracked it? We don’t yet know. The nomenclature is important. If you are a unionist, it’s quite tricky to oppose a quasi-international treaty unveiled at Windsor with all the symbolism that involves.

Likewise, the Stormont brake looks a work of genius. It effectively hands a veto on alleged over-reaching EU policy to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Crucially, that will require the assembly to be sitting: no assembly, no veto. To Jeffrey Donaldson, Sammy Wilson and the Democratic Unionists, the PM is effectively saying: ‘Over to you. It’s ‘make your mind up’ time.’

If the improvements promised by the Windsor Framework aren’t delivered, the blame will repose wholly with the DUP.

It’s clear the PM thinks the people of Northern Ireland – who go to the polls in just 65 days’ time – will take a pretty dim view of those politicians and parties who choose to oppose the framework and decide to leave Northern Ireland out in the cold.