It looked – momentarily, at least – that the DUP might save the government’s bacon. As MPs headed to vote on Boris Johnson’s tight three-day timetable for passing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, most of Arlene Foster’s 10 MPs remained in their seats.
Of course, anybody who had paid attention to anything that has been said in the Commons over the past four days will have had no cause for excitement: the DUP were not abstaining, and were never going to abstain. Their late departure was a deliberate attempt to tease observers. “We realised there was some interest,” one of their number drily reflects.
In reality, the DUP’s mind was made up yesterday. In the Commons last night, Jeffrey Donaldson, its chief whip, warned Jacob Rees-Mogg that the party could not support the government’s proposed timetable. The DUP does not abstain when it believes the question posed is a binary choice between maintaining or strengthening the union, and weakening it. Given their emphatic rejection of the deal, they could only vote one way.
Since the prime minister agreed to the withdrawal agreement – and with it a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea – it has been clear that the DUP are in no mood to help his government escape from the hole it has dug itself. They voted for the Letwin amendment, against the deal legislation’s second reading, and against the government’s programme motion.
Had Johnson not lost those 10 DUP votes – which, in striking a deal that hived off Northern Ireland, he clearly calculated he could do without – he would not be in so deep a hole. Can he ever win them back? As long as the deal remains unchanged, the answer is clearly no. Indeed, Donaldson went as far as to warn Julian Smith yesterday that devolution was unlikely to ever return if there was no change to the proposed consent mechanism, which effectively guarantees Northern Ireland will stay aligned with EU rules.
Interventions from the DUP benches have only got angrier since the publication of the bill last night. Members of the government payroll reply in terms that suggest they aren’t listening to, or cannot understand, the objections of its notional And the responses of ministers, in particular Smith, Johnson and Steve Barclay – who was forced to reveal that businesses transporting goods to Great Britain would have to complete customs declarations after initially suggesting they would not yesterday – have compounded concerns. One DUP MP says it is “absurd” to expect them to trust assurances from the government as long as its ministers do not appear across the detail of what their plan means for Northern Ireland. On today’s evidence, that isn’t happening anytime soon.