It’s the DUP that Theresa May should fear, not her own MPs

There is no eventuality in which Conservative MPs will vote for an early election that could let Corbyn in. The same can’t be said of the DUP.

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Out of the frying pan, into the fire? The European Research Group’s attempt to trigger a vote of no confidence in Theresa May looks to have fizzled out, with several members of the Brexiteer caucus deciding that discretion is the better part of valour. But the Conservatives’ nominal coalition partners, the Democratic Unionist Party, abstained last night on key finance bills, sending a message to May and to Tory MPs that supporting a Brexit end state that throws up further barriers between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom is a non-negotiable for them.

Regular Morning Call readers will be able to join in with the chorus at this point, but, of course, what really matters is not whether the ERG can muster 48 no confidence letters (turns out it can’t) but if it can chivvy up enough rebels to defeat the Brexit deal on the floor of the House of Commons. By any metric – the number of resignations from the front benches over the deal, the 25 who have publicly claimed to have written letters of no confidence – the answer to that is a resounding yes, even before you add in Conservative Remainers who are opposed to the deal or the ten DUP MPs.

As William Hague notes correctly in his Telegraph column today, “any deal that has as its parameters leaving the EU, keeping an open border with Ireland, letting business run smoothly and having our own immigration policy is going to resemble very closely the one that has been negotiated”. That’s an inconvenient truth for Labour, too, as long as freedom of movement remains a red line for that party.

But the particular danger for any Conservative leader is that either you sign up to a withdrawal agreement that keeps the whole of the United Kingdom within the single market and customs union and paying into the overall project in the event that negotiations break down, or you sign a withdrawal agreement that creates barriers in the Irish Sea. The former is unacceptable to Conservative MPs and the latter is unacceptable to the DUP.

That latter matters more because the crucial difference between the Tory party and the DUP is that there is no eventuality in which Conservative MPs will vote for an early election that could let Jeremy Corbyn in. But ultimately the “U” in DUP doesn’t stand for not letting Jeremy Corbyn in, regardless of how they feel about his past connections and sympathies. It stands for “Unionist”. If the choice that the DUP ultimately face is between a threat to the Union and the risk of a Corbyn-led government, they won’t have to think twice.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.