On Brexit, Theresa May risks losing the DUP

Ministers talk as if they would never agree to new checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but every compromise they come up with suggests they will.

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Could Theresa May lose the support of the DUP on Brexit? As the Prime Minister seeks a compromise to unlock talks after her humiliation in Salzburg last month, that prospect is very much live.

The government has until October’s EU summit to find a solution on the Irish backstop – the mechanism that would prevent a hard border if the Brexit trade deal doesn’t – before the final deal is struck the following month.

None has yet been forthcoming: British demands for the entire United Kingdom to remain in the EU’s customs territory if the backstop kicked in have already been dismissed by Brussels, which insists it must only apply to Northern Ireland.

That, of course, violates May’s red line on maintaining the constitutional integrity of the UK (and with it everything her parliamentary life support machine, the DUP, stands for). It’s curious, then, that the latest compromise being briefed by the government breaches it too.

Reports yesterday and today suggest that the government would be willing to impose some new regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain to avoid a hard border, with standards in the former closely aligned to the Republic and the checks themselves minimised by technology. The UK would also stay aligned to EU rules on goods even after the end of the transition period in 2020, limiting its ability to strike free trade deals.

Will it fly? The short answer is no. Not only will staying aligned to EU rules repel hard Brexiteers on the Tory benches, but new regulatory checks in the Irish Sea are anathema to the DUP. The government, which appears to think that when push comes to shove the unionists will only object to new customs checks, has been repeatedly reminded of this fact in no uncertain terms. Arlene Foster made their unconditional opposition to any new checks very clear this morning. The ERG thinks that this basically guarantees that May's deal will be voted down.

It’s a given that if May pushes ahead with a compromise like the one being floated today the Conservatives will lose the support of Foster’s ten MPs. “There seems to be an odd recurring theme of talking up the union and making noises about keeping us together while hoping we’ll acquiesce on regulatory divergence,” a DUP source says. “As ever, the red lines remain the same.”

They add: “The tactic of expecting a different outcome through repetition falls into the casual definition of madness...We’ve studiously avoided the histrionics around Chequers and every other amended plus plus model.”

The problem for the government, as ever, is that it cannot reconcile its red lines on leaving the customs union and single market and maintaining the constitutional integrity of the UK with the need to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. To strike a deal, they are going to have to screw someone.

Ministers talk as if it won’t be their unionist allies – Jeremy Hunt said this morning that the UK would never agree to new checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – but every solution that surfaces involves upsetting them. If they think there is a majority in the Commons for this compromise, it won’t include the DUP.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.