What Angela Merkel and the DUP have in common

The Brexit strategies of the past two prime ministers have been predicated on the assumption that people will give up on their fundamental beliefs just because Downing Street wants them to. 

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The DUP revel in bearing bad news for the government, and so it is today. As attempts to find a compromise on the Irish border drag on, both Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s chief whip, have warned that the United Kingdom is heading for a no-deal Brexit.

Both say the blame lies with the Irish government, which is insisting that the backstop – the legal mechanism that would prevent a hardening of the frontier in the event a trade deal didn’t keep it open by keeping the UK in a customs union with the EU – can only be subject to a review mechanism and not the unilateral break clause or time limit that the DUP and Tory Brexiteers want.

The intended recipient, however, is Downing Street rather than Dublin. Implicit in Donaldson and Foster’s argument that a backstop of the sort preferred by Leo Varadkar would result in no-deal is the threat of them withdrawing their support for the government and voting against Theresa May’s Brexit deal if she signs up to it.

Given that Brussels has not ever and will not ever offer a time limit or unilateral break clause, the review mechanism that the DUP has objected to is, bluntly, as good as it’s ever going to get. Dominic Raab and Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, have been tasked with drawing up a proposal to submit to the EU. It might win round Brexiteers in cabinet – especially if given Cox’s imprimatur– but it is less likely to win around the unionists, who will see any deliberative role for Ireland and the rest of the EU27 in ending the backstop as an affront to British sovereignty.

There can of course be no deal without a backstop – and almost certainly a Northern Ireland-only backstop to the all-UK one. The all-UK backstop, Cox told cabinet today, will involve several provisions that apply only to Northern Ireland. It follows that, if the government maintains its current direction of travel, the DUP cannot vote for its Brexit deal.

That much should be obvious but it doesn’t appear to be. A common assumption in Westminster is that the DUP are bluffing and will, when push comes to shove, fall into line, swallow a compromise and back the government. Accordingly, May is still trying to sell her allies things they have made clear they will not accept: the two most recent examples being that all-UK customs backstop with special measures for Northern Ireland, and new regulatory checks that take place away from the border.

At present, I understand the DUP will accept neither of these things, or any other convoluted solution to the same end. On Brexit and the union, they are proving to be allergic to fudge. And why wouldn’t they be? As much as Downing Street would like it to be, “just because” isn’t a good enough answer. The entire point of their political project – and the source of the electoral hegemony they currently enjoy within the unionist community – is that they do not compromise on these issues, or at least are not seen to. And they are even less likely to do it for a Downing Street operation that some feel has treated them shabbily since Gavin Williamson’s move from Chief Whip to Defence.  

There are echoes here of Team Cameron’s treatment of Angela Merkel. As James Kirkup noted in the Spectator last month, the last Downing Street operation spent the renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership blithely assuming that the Germans would abandon their own political interests just because Britain wanted them to. Their approach to the DUP is eerily similar. It’s political Micawberism: hoping that some concession will turn up, or can be willed into existence. That blind faith was unwarranted with Merkel. There are issues on which some people simply can’t be convinced. It is likely to prove the same with Arlene Foster – and her ten MPs.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.