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14 December 2018

Could sacking Karen Bradley really win back the DUP for May?

Calls for the Northern Ireland Secretary to go have more to do with the Prime Minister’s internal opponents than the DUP.

By Patrick Maguire

How do you solve a problem like Arlene? Some Tories, Katy Balls reveals in the Spectator, believe they have found a way to repair relations with the DUP: sacking Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary.

It isn’t difficult to see why they have reached that conclusion. To say Bradley has not impressed in her year in the job would be understatement bordering on the criminally negligent. Her admission in September that she had not known that unionists did not vote for nationalist parties, and vice versa, is the most memorable case in point.

More pertinent, though, is the fact that, contrary to the appearance created by the confidence and supply agreement, neither Bradley nor James Brokenshire, her predecessor as Secretary of State for Having Once Worked For Theresa May At The Home Office, were servants of the DUP agenda. There is longstanding frustration among its MPs about Bradley’s failure to introduce direct rule or otherwise act decisively amid the absence of devolution, and they have long disparaged the fitness of purpose of the Northern Ireland Office as an institution.

Disagreements over the prosecutions of Troubles veterans for historical offences is also a source of tension, as, of course, is Brexit. As one of a handful of genuine May loyalists in government, Bradley is a reliable advocate for the Downing Street line. Northern Ireland’s unique place in the Brexit process gives her a place at the most sensitive cabinet discussions within cabinet, and gives her contributions a weight belied by her gaffe-prone public image and a reputation for ineffectiveness among her colleagues. In this context, she is politically invaluable to the Prime Minister.

For that reason, calls for her sacking tell us more about the Prime Minister’s internal opponents than they do the DUP. It is of course the Brexit policy the government has pursued, and not its style or messengers, that has led to the collapse of trust. While ousting Bradley might quieten grumbles on devolution, one senior DUP source says it would be “both unfair and foolish to think her replacement would have any bearing” on the existential row over Europe as far as they are concerned. Day-to-day, too, the business of keeping the parliamentary relationship alive – or not – is done by Downing Street and the Whips, not Bradley. They add, however: “It wouldn’t cost the PM much to make that sacrifice.”

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That much is true in the sense that sacking Bradley would come without the risk of any significant recriminations. But there would be a political cost for May, which for her internal opponents is precisely the point of agitating for the sacking of her most reliable ally. For them, unlike the DUP, it would have a bearing on Brexit, in that it could shift the balance of power within cabinet further away from the Prime Minister.

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The easiest way to make that demand seem like a political imperative is to frame it in terms of what the DUP want, for if they don’t have what they want the Prime Minister doesn’t have the majority she needs for anything. That is what the European Research Group has done so effectively in recent months – and that, some unionists and May loyalists suspect, is what is afoot here.