Here’s a sentence that would have made no sense three years ago: Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are trying to woo Nigel Dodds. That’s the only sensible conclusion to draw from a Sky News interview with the leader of the opposition this evening, in which he defends the DUP’s opposition to the Irish backstop and claims they could “absolutely” support a Labour Brexit.
Corbyn was asked whether the possibility of a confidence vote in Theresa May’s administration explained why, to the consternation of some of its MPs and sister party in Northern Ireland, the Labour leadership taken the same absolutist line on the backstop as the government’s sometime confidence and supply partners.
“They clearly dislike the backstop for very good and very sensible reasons,” Corbyn said. “Yes, you have an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but in reality if you then transfer that border and a problem within the UK. So it is a problem.” He went on to suggest that he would bring forward a Brexit plan that could win the DUP’s support, namely one without a backstop. Labour’s position, as stated by Corbyn in a separate interview with Euronews tonight, is that its desire for a permanent customs union and high alignment with the single market would allow the backstop to be ditched from the withdrawal agreement (a position that’s either stupid or disingenuous, as it wouldn’t).
One DUP source describes tonight’s interview to me as “Jeremy showing a bit of leg”. Lee Reynolds, the party’s director of policy and strategic brain, warns Tory MPs that he is outflanking them on the union. We saw similar from the shadow chancellor in the meaningful vote debate yesterday. The most notable thing about his response to Philip Hammond was that whole passages were addressed directly to two DUP MPs sat behind him: Ian Paisley and Jim Shannon. McDonnell’s rhetorical and literal posture came close to genuflection. He told Paisley that there would be no need for the hated backstop under a Labour government and described the withdrawal agreement as “bad for our union”.
On one level, it’s a mark of how profoundly Brexit has jammed the signal of British politics that Corbyn and McDonnell – lifelong advocates for a united Ireland – are not only mimicking the DUP’s attack lines on Brexit but nakedly schmoozing their MPs. Until now, it was assumed (with no real justification) that the Labour leadership would respond to a minority parliament by asking Sinn Fein to take their seats. Now, however, they making overtures to DUP MPs that would have been unimaginable a matter of weeks ago – just as Dodds and Arlene Foster declaring Corbyn “gets it” and saying they could live with a Labour government, as they did last month, would have been too.
But seen in the context of both parties’ immediate strategic interest, these seeming contortions make a lot of sense. The DUP want to kill the withdrawal agreement, as do Labour – who also want to kill the government. The easiest way for both to do that – or at least get part of the way there – is to deny the prime minister her majority. The unionists have done so by denying their support on Brexit and other domestic issues, while Labour has done so by amplifying unionist and Eurosceptic criticisms of the backstop. Doing so deepens the fissures on the government benches.
The longer-term picture is less clear, however. Exploiting divisions now is one thing but turning a game of footsie into a sustainable working partnership would be quite another. The DUP has already said it will back the government in a vote of confidence once the withdrawal agreement is defeated. As for Labour, the chances of it negotiating a withdrawal agreement that doesn’t include a backstop – or, indeed, a new withdrawal agreement – are non-existent. When Labour figures are pressed on that point, they tend to flounder and fall back on sketchy statements of aspiration about the backstop never needing to be used.
Therein lies the problem. No matter how buttery its overtures to the DUP are now, any attempt to get them to sustain a Labour government that was acceding to EU demands for a backstop – which it would have to, even if its policy meant it wouldn’t be used – would fail quite quickly. McDonnell is wont to point out that Labour won’t strike confidence and supply agreements but, unlike the SNP, the DUP won’t back them just because they aren’t the Tories. They might bring down this government together yet, but the chances of any marriage of convenience enduring are very slim indeed.