The next Prime Minister faces a fight with the DUP on equal marriage

But it's not the fight you think.

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As Theresa May’s premiership enters its final weeks, many ministers are appearing at the dispatch box for what may well be the last time. Those who know they are on the way out, like Philip Hammond, who says he will do everything he can to stop a no-deal Brexit from the backbenches, have taken the opportunity to sign off with announcements that will make the next Prime Minister’s life more difficult. 

This morning it was Karen Bradley’s turn. Unless Jeremy Hunt confounds expectations and wins the Tory leadership election, the Northern Ireland Secretary will be leaving Cabinet at the same time as May, her longtime ally and mentor, and this morning’s session of Northern Ireland Questions was her last. 

One of her answers, however, will have enduring consequences. Conor McGinn, the Armagh-born Labour MP, asked Bradley whether the Commons could extend equal marriage to Northern Ireland via an amendment to upcoming legislation. In reply, the minister said the matter was devolved, as she always does. But she also reaffirmed a point of policy the government first conceded last February: that Westminster could legalise same sex marriage if it wanted to, and that Tory MPs would be given a free vote.

It wasn't a hypothetical question. Next week MPs will vote on legislation approving government expenditure in Northern Ireland and further delaying the statutory deadline for new elections to the devolved assembly at Stormont, now into its 30th month of suspension. McGinn, backed by a cross-party group including the former Tory cabinet minister Justine Greening, Layla Moran of the Liberal Democrats and Caroline Lucas of the Greens, will table an amendment that, if passed, would automatically legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland if devolution is not restored within three months. 

Given what we already know about the Commons arithmetic (MPs voted by a majority of 90 for an amendment that sought unsuccessfully to cajole Bradley into overturning Northern Ireland's bar on equal marriage and abortion last year) and the prospects of devolution returning anytime soon (slim to negligible), the amendment is both more likely to pass and eventually take legal effect than not. 

This, of course, will inevitably cause problems for a new prime minister who, like Theresa May, will depend on the DUP for their parliamentary majority. Arlene Foster’s party are, in principle at least, opposed to the extension of equal marriage to Northern Ireland and have used their power of veto at Stormont to frustrate repeated majority votes for its legalisation. Critics of the government often allege that Bradley’s refusal to impose reform from Westminster is the result of a grubby quid pro quo with the DUP, who would indeed be unhappy if McGinn’s plan came to fruition. But it wouldn’t be for the reason you might think. 

As much as the DUP’s official line on same sex marriage is one of outright opposition, senior figures within the party – particularly its rising stars at Stormont – increasingly speak as if its legalisation is an inevitability. When socially liberal cross-community parties surged in May’s local elections, DUP spokespeople took to the airwaves to stress uninvited that there was a pro-equality majority in the assembly. The clear implication was less Ian Paisley than Peter O’Hanrahanrahan: we don’t like it, but we’ll have to go along with it. Indeed, those thinking about the future of unionism in the long-term would probably be quietly relieved by such an outcome. 

So why the objection to Westminster legislating for an outcome the DUP has acknowledged would happen at a restored Stormont anyway? The answer, ironically, has less to do with the government being in Arlene Foster’s pocket than its habit of ignoring her MPs on an issue that animates them rather more: how Northern Ireland is governed. The party has been calling for the imposition of full-fat direct rule, with ministers appointed to run the province from Westminster, for the best part of the year. Bradley has instead chosen only to empower civil servants to act as ministers, a halfway house that has satisfied nobody and left major decisions on health, education and infrastructure untaken on the rather shonky constitutional grounds that they are ordinarily devolved. 

In this context of political torpor and dysfunction, DUP MPs believe any Westminster move to legislate for same-sex marriage and nothing else would be an act of “a la carte” direct rule. It would explode the fiction that devolution is coming back – the government’s last line of defence against acting on the domestic problems that animate politicians of all stripes in Northern Ireland – and set a precedent that the unionists would waste no time in using to pressure the next government over which it will hold the whip into intervening on other issues. Or, of course, into introducing direct rule, which would expend time and parliamentary bandwidth ministers do not have now and certainly will not have in early October.

Ultimately, that pressure could pose just as great a challenge to a new prime minister and their fragile hold on the Commons than a group of newly-empowered backbench rebels. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.