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17 October 2019

Why a no from the DUP doesn’t equal a no from the Spartans

Hardline Eurosceptics will make their judgement on the legal text of a deal - rather than Arlene Foster's reaction to it.

By Patrick Maguire

That many Tory Eurosceptics will follow the DUP into whatever lobby they choose come the vote on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is a truism in Westminster. But with a deal agreed, a fourth meaningful vote looming, and Arlene Foster’s 10 MPs still opposed, is it still true?

Both the DUP and their sometime allies in the European Research Group have yielded considerable ground since the last vote on a withdrawal agreement, in March. Regardless of its unhappiness with the consent mechanism agreed with the EU, the DUP is no longer opposed to new regulatory and customs checks at Northern Irish ports in of themselves. That is a significant concession. 

Much has also changed for the Spartans – the 28 Conservative MPs who voted against the withdrawal agreement at all three times of asking. Several of them, most notably Priti Patel and Theresa Villiers, now hold Cabinet and ministerial office – and most of those who don’t are at least willing to consider compromising for the sake of delivering Brexit rather than further delay. (This holds true even for the likes of Steve Baker, who told ITV last night that he was willing to accept the European Court of Justice having oversight over the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit.)

The DUP’s decision to say no again will not alter that dynamic. “The degree of unity or fragmentation,” one senior Spartan told me last night, “will depend on the legal text.” That thinking underlines an uncomfortable truth for Foster’s party. While the priorities of the ERG have often coincided with theirs, they are not identical. Whether Johnson wins or loses the support of the remaining Tory holdouts will have much more to do with whether what one ERG source calls their “very specific and slightly odd” demands on the deal are satisfied than it will the satisfaction of the DUP.

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