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9 November 2018

DUP MPs are unhappy with Theresa May’s Brexit deal. But they aren’t the only ones

The Prime Minister’s problem is that there will be something for almost everyone in the Tory Party to hate about her deal, and not nearly enough for a critical mass of Labour MPs to like.

By Patrick Maguire

Come on Arlene! That’s the gist of the private plea for support on Brexit that’s gone from Theresa May to the DUP to the front page of this morning’s Times. In a leaked letter to her parliamentary allies, the Prime Minister said she would not allow an Irish border backstop that separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK to ever come into force. Far from being reassured, Foster has taken this to mean that May will sign up to a Brexit deal that includes it – in other words, exactly the sort of deal the DUP won’t support.

You might have already filed this under “stuff we know already”, and to a certain extent that’s true. May wants a deal, the EU won’t agree to one without a backstop, and the rest is inevitable. But what is still remarkable is that “we” doesn’t include Downing Street, which is still trying to buy Foster off with platitudes about how much May loves the union. As far as DUP MPs are concerned, those platitudes are not matched by the legal reality of what May is going to agree to and they haven’t bought it for a long time. One of their number describes Downing Street’s repeated attempts to try to disguise that truth as falling under the casual definition of madness. Now, to coin a phrase, it’s the DUP who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.

It speaks to a bigger problem with May’s Brexit strategy. Her plans can’t pass parliament unless her political Micawberism is vindicated and concessions from somewhere somehow turn up. It’s clear at this stage that they aren’t coming from the DUP’s 10 MPs, whose votes she can probably forget about. And the irony there is that the fudge May concocted to buy them off – a backstop that kept the whole UK in what she has unconvincingly described as a “temporary” customs union – is going to alienate a big enough number of Tory Eurosceptics to make her life even harder, as their chief strategist Steve Baker warns this morning, and could yet lose her ministers. (“PM faces cabinet rebellion as she finalises Brexit deal” is today’s i splash.)

The headache is big enough before you get on to the other stuff in the deal that will enrage Conservative MPs whose objections aren’t priced in to the government’s endgame. If the price of a customs deal is letting EU fishermen continue accessing British waters – and today’s Telegraph suggests it will be – then suddenly another dozen or so potential rebels appear. Losing the DUP over internal divergence also raises the question of whether the 13 Scottish Tory MPs, if they haven’t already been lost over fishing, will follow them. It doesn’t take long for the numbers to start looking impossible for May. The hard core of Brexiteer ultras alone is enough to wipe out her majority. The nub of the issue is this: there will be something for almost everyone in the Conservative Party to hate about her deal, and not nearly enough for a critical mass of Labour MPs to like.

Despite the likelihood of a deceptively smooth landing for a deal in Brussels next week, the near-impossibility of getting it through Westminster means that it’s still wildly optimistic to expect this to be wrapped up anyime soon. “Just because” is still the best answer to the question of why May’s deal would pass parliament – and that should worry her.

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