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19 October 2019

Why the DUP could yet defeat Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal

The passage of the Letwin Amendment gives Arlene Foster's 10 MPs a golden opportunity to destablise the prime minister's fragile parliamentary coalition.

By Patrick Maguire

Anyone who listened to anything said by the DUP’s MPs in today’s debate on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will not have been surprised by their failure to save the government from defeat on the Letwin amendment. 

Their objections to the revised withdrawal agreement are many, deeply held, and increasingly powerfully and angrily expressed. They believe, with good reason, that it creates an economic border in the Irish Sea, and that it locks unionists in Northern Ireland into a customs and regulatory regime from which they have no real hope of escaping. 

It is worth noting that on this they are for once on the same page as independent unionist Sylvia Hermon, the only non-DUP MP and Remainer – sitting for a Northern Irish constituency. Hermon was a doughty supporter of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, and with it the backstop. But she is just as furious about Johnson’s proposals as Nigel Dodds or Sammy Wilson, whose judgement she is usually more than happy to disdain. That they are united for the first time in the Brexit process is a measure of just how raw a deal political unionism feels it has been given. 

But quite apart from their indignation at having been abandoned by the government, the logic of their position on the Northern Ireland protocol of the new agreement meant that the DUP and Hermon whose 11 votes were decisive in inflicting the defeat were never going to do anything but vote for Letwin’s amendment, which withholds approval for the withdrawal agreement until the legislation giving it domestic legal effect is passed by parliament. 

Why? They could not vote for it, and do not abstain when they believe the question is a binary choice between maintaining or weakening the union. But the amendment also presents the DUP with an opportunity to exercise the parliamentary clout Boris Johnson no longer believes they have. The answer lies in the foreboding final line of the party’s statement rejecting the deal earlier this week: “Saturday’s vote in Parliament on the proposals will only be the start of a long process to get any Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the House of Commons.” The subtext of that threat was clear: they are prepared to wreck the legislation for the government. 

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Speaking after its defeat this afternoon, Dodds made clear how his MPs intend to do so: they would, he said, “examine all amendments” and assess their impact on the union. Both he and Arlene Foster have always been clear that ultimately, the precise shape of any future Brexit deal is secondary to whether it applies uniformly to the UK as a whole. In March, Dodds went as far as to say that he would sooner stay in the EU accept a Brexit deal that treated Northern Ireland differently to Great Britain. They have since compromised on that fundamental principle, of course, by endorsing a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. But their decision to do so was not repaid by Johnson, who has humiliated them at home and at Westminster.

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Opposition MPs seeking to amend the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to secure a softer Brexit for the whole UK or, indeed, a route to no Brexit at all might well find they have just gained a powerful ally. The government’s 306-strong coalition for a deal is already unstable – keeping paleosceptics like Bill Cash and Steve Baker and Labour MPs like Melanie Onn united was always going to be difficult. An emboldened DUP, freed from its obligation to support the government, might well make its collapse inevitable.