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by Louise Wilson
28 February 2023
Sketch: Rishi Sunak visits ‘world’s most exciting economic zone’

Photo credit: No 10 Downing Street

Sketch: Rishi Sunak visits ‘world’s most exciting economic zone’

Rishi Sunak is pure cheesin’. And not just because he’s standing in a warehouse in Northern Ireland between two giant towers of Coca Cola, his self-professed vice.

“Total Coke addict” Sunak – who two years ago claimed to only allow himself one can a week, but hey, it’s been a rough couple of years – is hosting the latest session of “PM Connect” from County Antrim. Think Dear Deidre, but much less helpful.

The Prime Minister is there to mark his Windsor Framework, which is the plan to fix the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was the plan to fix the problems of Brexit, which was the plan to fix the deep unhappiness within his own party about those EU bigwigs. And so far, it all seems to be going (whisper it) well…?

“I think this is an extraordinarily positive step for Northern Ireland,” insists Sunak, unable to contain his glee that his plan was not immediately torn to pieces by his fellow Brexiteers. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

The problem with the Protocol, the PM goes on to say, was that special oak trees just for the Queen’s Jubilee were not available in Northern Ireland’s garden centres and dogs are forced to get treatment for tapeworm. That was “clearly ridiculous” because it meant the six counties “didn’t feel like the same country” as the UK, which is full of Jubilee oaks and tapeworm-ridden dogs.

“What was available in Great Britain on the shelves in the supermarkets… was not available on the shelves in Northern Ireland,” he says. Now though, thanks to his new ingenious plan, the people of Northern Ireland will have the “same things” the rest of the UK enjoys. Soon, the residents of Northern Ireland can look forward to identical shelves in supermarkets. Empty ones. No more of those pesky tomatoes or cucumbers or peppers. Hooray for Brexit.

And with that point well made, the PM invites the audience to ask questions. One is about energy security, to which Sunak replies he just put a “brilliant guy called Grant Shapps” in charge. He says this reflects how important he considers that issue. Make of that what you will.

Then he’s asked about child poverty. “To think of child in poverty is heartbreaking. It’s hard to imagine,” says the billionaire, trying his best (and failing) to conjure an image of children without diamond tiaras and designer clothes.

But back to the Windsor Framework, Sunak insists having access to EU markets is “really important”. “Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position – a unique position in the entire world or European continent – in having privileged access not just to the UK home market, which is enormous, fifth biggest in the world, but also the European single market. Nobody else has that. No one. Only you guys, only here. That is the prize.”

If Brexiteer Sunak believes being part of both the UK market and the European single market is such a “prize”, then boy is he going to be mad when he finds out about the last few years. To be fair to the man – and I always like to be fair – he had only been an MP for just over a year when the EU referendum happened. It can be difficult keeping across everything when you’ve just started a new career.

Anyway, it turns out Brexit did indeed mean Brexit. But only for Great Britain. Brexit means something a bit less than Brexit for Northern Ireland, but that’s a good thing because it makes it the “world’s most exciting economic zone”. It would be a bad thing for the rest of the country though because of… reasons.

If you’re wondering why he’s so keen on upselling this major difference between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, it’s because the DUP has not yet given their judgement. And things get noticeably more awkward when one audience member wonders what his view is on certain politicians drawing a salary but refusing to do their jobs.

“That’s a really good question,” Sunak says. He laughs nervously, before adding the questioner has made a “totally reasonable point”. But he also insists those MLAs who have refused to form a new executive had “valid” concerns about the Protocol. It’s a delicate tightrope, trying to convey annoyance about people not working while at the same time not wanting to rock the DUP boat.

His last answer is in response to a query about ensuring Northern Ireland does not go backwards. Sunak, speaking as though he’s some great orator standing between the pillars of the great Coca-Cola Pantheon, thunders: “You are in control of your destiny, because that is what is right.” All the sugar has reduced him to parroting self-help books.

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