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26 October 2019

Why no Conservative MPs are at this year’s DUP conference

In 2018, Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson competed for Arlene Foster's affections. A year on, her party stands defiantly alone.

By Patrick Maguire

“Correction to your headline: the DUP has lost its influence.” That was the message I received from a government minister after I wrote on Tuesday evening that Boris Johnson had lost the DUP

True to their word, Arlene Foster’s 10 MPs have voted to obstruct the prime minister’s Brexit deal at every time of asking since it was struck in Brussels last week. When it comes to Europe, at least, there is no chance of the DUP riding to his rescue.

But the very fact of their abandonment by Johnson reflects another truth — that ministers have calculated that there is a route to passing the withdrawal agreement without them. 

Both interpretations are correct. The government has, for now at least, lost the confidence of its nominal confidence and supply partners. But the government, and with it the Conservative Party, clearly believes that to be a necessary — if vaguely regrettable — evil. 

The parlous state of relations between the two parties is borne out in the overwhelming flatness of the DUP’s conference this year. Under a year ago, it gathered in the same Belfast hotel and hosted not one but two Tory heavyweights: Philip Hammond, then chancellor, and Boris Johnson, then a backbench malcontent. 

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Much has changed since, not least the standing of Hammond and Johnson — and the latter’s stance on a border in the Irish Sea. Just as notable is the complete absence of any government representative, or, indeed, non-DUP MP at this year’s conference. 

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Arlene Foster and her deputy, Nigel Dodds, instead castigated the Tories in their conference speeches. They were offered a ministerial speaker by the government, but declined. Privately, party officials are not even attempting to disguise their contempt for Johnson and his Cabinet.

So have the Conservatives lost the DUP, or have the DUP lost their influence over the Conservatives? In either case, its conference has made clear that their working relationship will not be repaired as long as this withdrawal agreement remains government policy.