‘Dear Rishi’. The code words of British politics

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 28, 2023

It’s astonishing how many cliches, code words, jargon and sporty phrases are being used for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s new trade deal with the European Union (EU) on Northern Ireland. The deal will allow Northern Ireland to keep its border with Ireland with some customs controls, as well as remain closer to Europe’s single market than the rest of mainland UK.

It’s a “complete and utter game-changer”, said former Brexit secretaries Dominic Raab, Steve Barclay and David Davis in a joint op-ed for The Daily Mail. Mr Barclay, of course, is the self-declared hard man of Brexit. It’s quite something that his verbal effulgences extended to recommending we “turn the page” on the protocol and “move on to the next chapter”.

Meanwhile, the always-grand Jacob Rees-Mogg spoke with some warmth about the Stormont brake, the rather oddly named legislative provision that allows 30 of the 90 members of the legislative assembly of Northern Ireland from two or more parties to raise a petition objecting to changes to EU rules operating in the province. The UK government then gets to notify the EU and the rule is suspended unless and until both sides agree it should go back into force.

The British media is drowning in platitudes. The Daily Mail asked: “Has Rishi done the impossible?” The Sun editorialised: “The sausage wars are over”. The Times hailed a “Brexit Breakthrough”. The Telegraph said: “The Prime Minister played a difficult hand well…” And there are still more sporty phrases: Sunak has hit a home run; hit it out of the park; hit a grand slam. When someone achieves a success of some sort, it’s funny how we reach for words that illustrate real-time action, in an athletic setting very different from the metaphorical feints and jabs of politics.

Something interesting to note with Mr Sunak’s new Northern Ireland deal is the excrescence of words that hung, barnacle-like, on the whole negotiations process. For months, we’ve been hearing about something called the “tunnel”, ie the highly secretive talks that take place just before a deal is struck. In the final weeks of talks, the tunnel was not even acknowledged by  British officials and ministers. All they would say was that discussions were still a “scoping exercise”.

The naming process is also worth thinking about. Rather than the spare phrase for an unworkable deal – Northern Ireland protocol – it’s become the Windsor Framework, something that sounds solid, with substance and an aged patina. Who knew that a trade deal benefits from being presented to the public like an antique sideboard (mahogany, preferably), a piece of “forever furniture”?

Finally, of course, there is European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s frank, smiling approval of “dear Rishi”. It’s not a phrase anyone in Brussels would have used about Mr Sunak’s recent predecessors. Perhaps those two words are the real gamechanger.