The DUP aren't Remainers – but they’re not the ERG either

Nigel Dodds says the party would sooner stay in the EU than accept Theresa May’s deal. If the union comes first, it’s one of the few Brexit outcomes that actually works.

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The DUP has always denied it could live with a soft Brexit. Having backed a Leave vote in 2016, it has spent much of this Parliament acting in concert with the European Research Group.

So it is at first glance to surprising to see how Nigel Dodds has responded to the third defeat of the withdrawal agreement this afternoon. “I would stay in the European Union and remain rather than risk Northern Ireland’s position,” the party’s Westminster leader tells Newsnight. “That’s how strongly I feel about the Union.”

He stresses that his party “will look at any option” so long as it does not undermine the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. Come On Arlene might be the favoured refrain of the tabloids on days such as these, but DUP MPs will tell you that it is Dodds who really runs the show. Westminster should take his words very seriously indeed.

Yet as much as it has been greeted as such, it is not a change in substance. Nor, really, is it a change in tone. In public and in private, the DUP’s fundamental criterion for backing any Brexit outcome – or indeed none – has not changed since 2016. It is their only red line. The preservation of the Union trumps all, even if it means supporting something that their tactical interest obliged them to reject.

A similar logic holds for most Conservative Eurosceptics, among them sometime DUP fellow-travellers Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, both of whom voted for the withdrawal agreement today. Only in their case the cause that matters is a Brexit that does not leave the UK locked into the economic and regulatory orbit of the European Union – if necessary, to the exclusion of everything else.

For a time, those two strategic objectives dovetailed. The Withdrawal Agreement and its backstop were, as far as the DUP and ERG were concerned, both bad for the Union and for a Brexit worthy of the name. So it was that the two worked as a bloc. For Tory Eurosceptics, the button marked Dodds was a useful means of demonstrating that the government could not command a majority in the Commons – or, indeed, govern – if it did not change course on Brexit.

The DUP, however, has always been aware that the most straightforward way that the ERG might achieve the high-divergence Brexit it wants – a dream that is impossible to achieve unless you countenance physical infrastructure on the Irish border or a border in the Irish Sea – is to rat on the Union. Despite their willingness to don the orange jersey when expedient, in any other Parliament most Conservative MPs would have been able to live with new economic barriers within the United Kingdom. The easiest price to pay for Canada is Northern Ireland. Alive to this risk, the DUP’s MPs – only two of whom, Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley, can be said to be especially doctrinaire Eurosceptics – made clear that it would not rat on the ERG’s Brexit so long as the ERG did not rat on the Union.

While 28 Tory Brexiteers held out and went through the no lobby with the DUP, the faces of the cause – Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab – did not. The former group of hardliners denies the ERG as an entity has abandoned the DUP, but its actions suggest otherwise, and if you follow the logic of its fairweather members to its inevitable end, it isn’t surprising. The same is true of Dodds and his MPs. The only possible outworking of prioritising the union above all else is that, regardless of the DUP’s political positioning at any given moment, it could live with any outcome that did not violate the integrity of the union as they (uncompromisingly) define it.

There are only so many destinations that road can take you. A Withdrawal Agreement with a backstop isn’t one (despite it being so for Tory Brexiteers who want jam, or regulatory divergence, tomorrow). Neither is the customs union, which doesn’t solve the border problem alone (hence why the DUP voted against it on Wednesday night).

Where else? Realistically, the only destinations left are a Norway-style single market arrangement plus membership of the customs union, or continued membership of the EU. Rather less realistically, there is also a Withdrawal Agreement denuded of the backstop – which Dodds called for in the Commons this afternoon. Given that they cannot make that happen, they are overwhelmingly likely to end up in the sort of position they always denied they would. Not that we should be surprised.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.