The Conservatives will need more than "don't let Corbyn in" to keep the DUP on board

In a well-received speech to the DUP's conference, Boris Johnson made a play for the party's support – but his overtures risk falling on deaf ears.

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Having played host to Philip Hammond last night, this afternoon saw DUP conference play host to a star guest from the Conservative Party’s provisional wing: Boris Johnson. The former foreign secretary gave the sort of speech one would expect, with lots of flowery invective about Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement and its backstop agreement for the Irish border, which he said would leave Northern Ireland “an economic semi-colony of the EU”, and a call for a bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland. 

So far, so predictable: we know both Johnson and the DUP do not like the withdrawal agreement and will not vote for it. Much more interesting was a passage where Johnson did something he has seldom done since leaving the government and offered an impassioned defence of its record as he urged the DUP not to countenance the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister.

“It is thanks to the arrangement between our two parties that we were able to stop [Jeremy Corbyn] taking over, and today we are looking at a country that is benefiting from a sensible, moderate and One Nation Conservative government. We have unemployment running at the lowest rate since 1975, we have real wage growth at last, we have the deficit falling and the UK once again is one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. 

“And so to our allies in the DUP: I hope you agree that it is absolutely vital that we keep this partnership going and that we are not so complacent as to abandon the government of this country to a man whose avowed policy is to break up this country.”

What is Johnson playing at? Those lines are best read as a response to two lines senior DUP figures have started to take recently. The first, emphasised by Nigel Dodds in his conference speech, is that the party’s confidence and supply arrangement is with the Conservative Party and not Theresa May. The second, made increasingly baldly, is that the DUP does not fear a Corbyn government to such an extent that it will back a Brexit deal that does not meet its red line on the union, and that it would in fact prefer to risk that government than accept May’s withdrawal agreement. It was a bid to sell himself as the unionists’ lowest-risk ticket to continued influence: the suggestion is that the unionists do not need to pull the entire parliament down in pursuit of the Brexit they want. After last week’s budget votes, the supply is gone – but Johnson urged them to still offer confidence to a Tory government come what may.

It’s for the second reason that Johnson’s back-us-or-get-Corbyn gambit isn’t a particularly strong one. It doesn’t appear that he has read Arlene Foster’s interview with today’s Times, in which she says of the prospect of a government led by republican sympathisers: “There are many in the Labour Party who don’t support that view … we need to look at the whole picture. The Brexit deal is a real threat as opposed to something that might happen.” Prime Minister Corbyn would be so constrained by the relevant bits of Northern Ireland legislation – the most relevant bit, ironically, being the Good Friday Agreement that the DUP opposed – that he would have next to no recourse to change the constitution. As the DUP keep saying, the threat is nowhere near as potent as some Tories would like. 

But the argument does acknowledge that, on the Commons’s current composition, the Conservatives can only really govern with the support of the DUP. That’s the point of the party’s decision to go on strike in the Commons last week and a truth that Tory Eurosceptics are trying to weaponise in their bid to kill off the withdrawal agreement and with it May. Johnson’s speech was a bid to impress upon the DUP that they should keep that leverage rather than risk losing it in a general election, which, even if they retained or even beat their historic best of 10 seats from 2017, would leave them at the mercy of movements in England, Scotland and Wales.

It was also an attempt to impress upon his own party that he is the candidate best placed to reassemble that working majority that May has lost. That, however, would require Johnson to either win a Conservative leadership contest before March 2019 or be able to win the second of the two confidence votes provided for under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (assuming the DUP pull the plug on May in the first). Given what we know about Johnson’s reputation within his own party, that prospect looks about as likely as the bridge to Scotland he proposed to rapturous applause in Belfast this afternoon.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.