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24 November 2018

Could the DUP back a soft Brexit?

More interesting than anything Arlene Foster said in her party conference speech was an admission that the DUP was not opposed to a Norway-style Brexit.

By Patrick Maguire

The discussion on Brexit at the DUP’s conference was as the events of recent events suggested it would be: we like it, but not Theresa May’s version of it, and certainly not with a backstop. Much more interesting than anything Arlene Foster – or anyone else – said was the following line in the leader’s pre-conference interview with this morning’s Times.

Asked what sort of relationship with the EU her party wanted to see, Foster said: “We have never been prescriptive, it’s up to the prime minister to decide what the future trading relationship should look like. All we have ever said to her is, ‘Please do not cause any divergence between Northern Ireland and GB.’ That’s the most disappointing thing for us and it’s pretty bad.”

On the face of it, this is an interesting example of the DUP’s own internal divergence. Whereas Foster suggests that she would be open to the softest possible Brexit just as long as it applied to the United Kingdom as a whole, much of what her MPs say and do in the Commons suggests the precise opposite, not least because it is done in coordination with the European Research Group of Conservative MPs. They make much of the potential for post-Brexit trade deals and sources familiar with the drafting of the confidence and supply agreement insist that it was worded in such a way as to tie the Conservatives into backing something more than Brexit in name only. 

Nigel Dodds himself referred to that wording in his speech today. “The Confidence and Supply Agreement between the Conservative Party and the DUP was based on our shared objectives for strengthening and enhancing the Union, and achieving an exit from the European Union that benefits all parts of the United Kingdom. 

“It speaks of our agreement to support legislation on Brexit in line with both parties’ shared priorities for negotiating a successful exit from the European Union. That means delivering a Brexit deal that takes back control of our laws, our money and our borders and that we leave the European Union as one country.”

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The crucial kicker there is “that we leave the European Union as one country”. That, as Foster has said, is the party’s “blood red line”, and amid the fallout from the government’s Brexit white paper in July, one of her MPs told me that the party was deliberately avoiding the “histrionics over Chequers and whatever plus plus plus models” until it knew whether May’s deal would violate it.

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Though the DUP will not vote for the withdrawal agreement at the first time of asking, words such as those from Foster and Dodds do raise the interesting question of what could win their support at the second time of asking or on an amendment to the meaningful vote, especially if it is the Norway-style Brexit and customs union that some in government are increasingly willing to predict. It also highlights the fundamental problem for the Brexiteers — save for imposing technology on the border that the EU will not accept, there is no way they can throw their lot in with the DUP and have the sort of Brexit they want. 

The fact remains, however, that while we know what sort of Brexit there is a latent majority for in the Commons, it still isn’t entirely clear how it could be weaponised to prevent a no-deal scenario. Regardless of which direction the DUP move in, that remains more likely than anything else.