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29 September 2019

Is anyone actually listening to the DUP?

Speaking on the Conservative conference fringe, Arlene Foster flatly rejected the sort of compromises on the backstop we are told her party will accept.

By Patrick Maguire

It’s often said that the DUP leadership, or at least elements within it, are shifting on the question of the Irish backstop – the main bar to the deal Boris Johnson professes to want.

But when that proposition is actually put to its leader, Arlene Foster, her answers give the opposite impression. 

Speaking at a Policy Exchange event on the Conservative conference fringe this afternoon, Foster ruled only one potential compromise in: a time-limited backstop. But that, of course, is not a compromise that the Irish government is willing to entertain – as Foster herself acknowledges. 

Far more numerous, and significant, were those she ruled out. It was no to any form of customs border in the Irish Sea, no to Northern Ireland remaining in both the EU and UK customs territories, and no to new regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on anything but agricultural goods, and no to any solution that did not give the currently moribund Stormont executive a veto over any regulatory divergence.

The landing zone for any potential deal to remodel, rename, or at least pretend to replace the Northern Ireland protocol of the existing withdrawal agreement with something the DUP and with them the British government can swallow is already narrow. Yet the only reasonable conclusion one can draw from Foster’s remarks is that they have their sights set on an entirely different runway. As yet, Dublin has shown no indication that it is willing to consider that alternative route. 

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But let’s be generous, and say there is a slim chance of a U-Turn from the Irish. Alternatively, you might believe – as many in Westminster do – that Boris Johnson is preparing to screw the DUP, who can no longer really be said to hold the balance of power. You might argue that what Foster thinks about the specifics of hypothetical models bandied about in the weeks before that crunch EU Council summit on 17 October doesn’t really matter at all. You might recall the DUP’s well-honed capacity for political gymnastics and conclude, given that Foster and just about everyone trusted to speak for the party are saying they do not want no-deal, that they will swallow whatever emerges from that summit anyway.

It’s certainly a view. By Foster’s own logic – which she helpfully explained at length today – to do so would mean disregarding what she sees as her party’s raison d’etre: maintaining the constitutional integrity of the union of the United Kingdom. You might disagree with her absolutist (or, as some allege, selective) interpretation of that constitutional integrity, but when it comes to customs, the knottiest question of all, she has been consistent. 

In either scenario, however, it doesn’t really matter. If Foster really isn’t for turning – and there is little if any concrete evidence that she is – then the landing zone for a deal in Brussels is so narrow as to be untenable. But if the DUP is going to follow its pro-deal position to its logical endpoint – accepting more or less anything, even if it is the existing withdrawal agreement with cosmetic tweaks – then the landing zone for a deal in Westminster gets a fair bit narrower too. And that is even truer if Boris Johnson tries to strike a deal that the DUP don’t like.

Why? We know that the government’s rough path to a deal involves winning the DUP, and then the votes of Labour MPs who supported Brexit or sit in Leave seats, and squeezing the 28 Conservative ‘Spartans’ – the hardline Eurosceptics who voted against the deal three times – to single figures, something a lot of people in government and even within the ERG seem to believe is possible.

Speaking on the same panel, Labour’s Kate Hoey said she would vote against the withdrawal agreement even if it was completely denuded of the backstop. That’s one vote. We know that a rump of the Spartans agree with her. There’s another ten or so. These aren’t huge numbers, but a deal will pass or fall on the finest of margins. And this is the scenario where the DUP are happy. If they are not, at least another ten votes go from the aye lobby – to say nothing of the Tories that will follow. In either scenario, you require hitherto impossible numbers of Labour MPs – dozens of them – to save Boris Johnson.

Could the pressure of the eleventh hour produce the majority that escaped Theresa May? It’s not impossible. But actually listening to Arlene Foster makes it difficult to conclude it will be anything like as straightforward as some expect.

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