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13 September 2018

How the DUP and the ERG shut down one of the few remaining solutions to the Irish border issue

At this point, it’s a good job the cabinet are meeting today to discuss a no-deal Brexit.

By Patrick Maguire

Jacob Rees-Mogg may have spent yesterday talking down the chances of an imminent leadership coup, but his European Research Group has created a new headache for Downing Street with their proposals for the Irish border.

Gone are outlandish calls for drones and airships, in are comparatively sober proposals for technology-based solutions, mutual recognition of standards, trusted trader schemes, a common biosecurity zone, and checks away from the border itself. Like Theresa May, the ERG knows this issue will make or break its vision of Brexit. By its standards, it is a serious piece of work.

So no surprise that the Irish government has dismissed it as “dreamland stuff”. But for the Prime Minister, much more significant than the content – which is mostly the sort of stuff that she and indeed the EU have already dismissed anyway – is the fact that her allies in the DUP pointedly welcomed it yesterday.

Nigel Dodds, the unionists’ all-powerful Westminster leader, ominously described the paper as a “positive and timely development”, adding: “For too long some have used the border issue, and the political process in Northern Ireland more generally to try to mould Brexit or to thwart it altogether. This should stop.”

Equally helpfully, Sammy Wilson, the party’s most doctrinaire Leaver and pugnacious Brexit spokesman, made one of the party’s red lines even thicker by clarifying the party would not accept a regulatory border, in addition to not having a customs border, down the Irish Sea. Some had hoped that this proposal would have been the very way to reconcile the government’s red lines on keeping the border open while also maintaining the constitutional integrity of the UK. The ERG probably rightly reckons it nukes that argument – or as they call it, “the Number 10 canard”.

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One of the few remaining routes to a fudge on the border is now closed off. As one DUP source told me: “One man’s fudge is another man’s sell out.” So true to form, they have made an already difficult job even trickier for May. That this all happened on a day that Dodds and Arlene Foster met the Prime Minister to discuss their role as her parliamentary life support machine underlines the extent to which they are still prepared to be deeply unhelpful. Though they have not withdrawn their backing, nor formally called for the ERG plans to be adopted as government policy, this still augurs badly for the Prime Minister.

It shouldn’t need restating, but its relative quietness in recent months had led some to assume the DUP had been boxed off. Yesterday is a reminder that they have not. As long as the border issue remains unresolved – which by Brussels and Dublin’s standards, it is – the prospect of a backlash from its nine MPs remains very much a live one. “Our initial red lines remain,” a source tells me. “That’s what we’ll judge any deal on.” It’s not at all clear how May won’t cross them.

For all the talk of Tory MPs chucking Chequers, it’s easy to forget that it’s a proposal, not a deal. This is, despite appearances, a dynamic process and what May comes back with won’t necessarily look very much like it. Indeed, the likelihood is that it could well be even less acceptable to the ERG and DUP.

It’s a salutary reminder that nothing is resolved. What gets May over the line in an increasingly friendly Brussels could deepen her woes at home. Dominic Raab announces today that he is stepping up no-deal planning, which the cabinet will discuss for three whole hours today. That meeting feels well-timed.