The Labour leadership has always harboured hopes of driving a wedge between the government and its sometime allies in the DUP. Jeremy Corbyn spent much of last winter parroting Arlene Foster’s line on the Irish backstop. Frontbenchers were warned to avoid aggressive attacks on the DUP, lest Labour need their votes come a vote of no confidence.
Now, a year on, Corbyn and his shadow cabinet are once again pitching for the 10 DUP votes that still notionally keep the government in office. In the wake of the passage of the Letwin amendment last week, Keir Starmer made a public appeal for their support on a second referendum or customs union.
The big message from this weekend’s DUP conference? Don’t bother. The standout speech of this morning’s session, from South Belfast MP Emma Little-Pengelly on the future of unionism, sought to impart two key messages.
The first – and far more notable as far as the electoral politics of Northern Ireland are concerned – was the need for the DUP, and unionism more broadly, to present a more welcoming and inclusive image. “Perhaps, too often, we play into our enemies’ hands,” Pengelly, one of the party’s rising stars and strategic brains, said.
She went on to warn: “Too many of our young people care nothing for the Union. We are losing too many of our young people from traditionally unionist families, we cannot take them for granted.” Without critical self-reflection, she warned, unionism faced an uncertain future. Demography, she candidly admitted, was not on the DUP’s side. It was, above all else, a candid admission that the DUP must do better – and a challenge to the party faithful to that effect.
But Pengelly had a much more painful truth in store for Corbyn, who she described as a far greater threat to the union than even the most unreconstructed elements of the DUP’s base. Even more strikingly, she suggested that the prospect of a Labour government would undermine the union to an even greater extent than Boris Johnson’s “utterly abhorrent” Brexit deal, and its border in the Irish Sea.
“Conference, we will do all we can to defend our union, and to fight for what is right.”
“On our other side, lies the very real and present danger that is Jeremy Corbyn… Let us make no mistake. Corbyn is the greatest existential threat to our union.”
“If Corbyn gets the keys to Number 10, our union will be in peril… Not only because if he needs a majority, he will do a dirty little deal with Sturgeon and the SNP, granting them a second referendum in Scotland.
“We must do everything to prevent this man from ever becoming Prime Minister. The best way to achieve this is for Unionists to turn out, vote, and help us prevent a Jeremy Corbyn government.”
Those lines will reassure Boris Johnson – who, after all, passed his Queen’s Speech on the back of DUP votes on Thursday – as much as they will worry the Labour leadership.
Labour have always found consolation in Foster’s by now familiar line about the union, rather than any particular vision of Brexit, being her ultimate red line. Much of Westminster has followed that argument to its logical conclusion: that the DUP would, when push came to shove, prefer a Corbyn government that proposed a marshmallow-soft Brexit for the entire UK to a Conservative one that imposed a border in the Irish Sea.
Pengelly has, in the strongest possible terms, demolished that assumption. For those on the opposition benches who still harbour hopes of cobbling together a majority for a softer Brexit in this parliament, that could well be a fatal blow.
Without the DUP’s 10 votes, any opposition-led initiative in the 2017 Parliament faces an uphill struggle towards a majority. That they have categorically ruled out doing anything that helps facilitates a Corbyn government means assembling one to dislodge Johnson may well be impossible.