What should we expect from Jeffrey Donaldson as DUP leader?

The DUP’s new leader faces a host of challenges – and a potentially tricky by-election, too.

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Jeffrey Donaldson is set to replace Edwin Poots as leader of the DUP, after nominations closed at midday today (22 June) with Donaldson the only candidate. 

His name will now go forward to the party’s electoral college, consisting of the DUP’s MPs and Stormont assembly members, which is expected to meet and vote in the single-candidate leadership election at the weekend. If approved by the electoral college, the DUP’s central executive committee is expected to ratify him as leader next week.

The Lagan Valley MP is viewed with suspicion by some in the opposing parties (he is described by one opponent as “slippery”), but his leadership is nevertheless widely expected to usher in a period of calm after a tumultuous few weeks. Politicians in Northern Ireland expect he will do his utmost to avoid collapsing the assembly and triggering an election this year, and he hinted as much in the statement declaring his leadership bid, in which he pledged to "put the DUP on the path to victory at next year's election" on 5 May 2022, when the next vote will be held unless the assembly collapses sooner. 

He inherits all the problems with the Northern Ireland protocol that both previous DUP leaders grappled with, as well as the new legislation on Irish language provisions – which is unpopular among DUP voters – agreed to by Edwin Poots during his brief tenure. There’s nothing Donaldson can do about the latter, but he will be seeking a breakthrough on the protocol by 30 June, when the grace period ends, unless the EU grants an extension.

But the new DUP leader will face a new dilemma of his own over whether or not to trigger a by-election in his Westminster seat of Lagan Valley. He has previously indicated that he would stand down as an MP and seek a seat at Stormont if he were elected DUP leader, but the move comes with risks. His party is at a record low in the polls and would fear a defeat in the constituency by the cross-community Alliance Party, which managed to narrow Donaldson’s majority in Lagan Valley down to only 6,499 in 2019. Equally, he could find he struggles to control his party at Stormont without a seat in the assembly. 

It seems entirely likely that we are heading for a summer of tense by-elections: not just for Labour in Batley and Spen, but for the DUP in Lagan Valley.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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