Hello from Hartlepool. Boris Johnson is facing a moment of intense political difficulty as the Electoral Commission opens a formal investigation into whether the Conservative Party broke electoral law through a potential failure to declare donations that funded the redecoration of the Downing Street flat. In Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster has been ousted as DUP leader, and will stand down as First Minister at the end of June.
Unionism is in crisis. The Irish Sea border arrangements have weakened Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, and the question of a border poll in the coming decade isn’t going away. The DUP, the dominant unionist party which played an active role in creating this set of circumstances, is similarly in deep crisis.
The DUP leader has been removed for the same reason all leaders are removed: the party fears a kicking at the next Stormont elections (due next year) under her leadership. Specifically, it is afraid it will lose support among its hardline base, a possibility demonstrated by the two demands of the no-confidence letters to Foster: firstly, an end to the Northern Ireland protocol, the arrangement that creates the Irish Sea border, and, secondly, a repeal of the new laws liberalising abortion access in Northern Ireland.
Foster, a relative moderate within her party, is likely to be replaced by someone to her right: the current favourite is Edwin Poots, whose greatest hits include maintaining a ban on blood donation by gay men long after it was repealed in the rest of the UK. The High Court later found the ban “irrational”.
But the change of leader won’t change the fundamental electoral predicament the DUP faces. A poll in January indicated that the party is bleeding support to its right and left: to the hardline TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) and to the unaligned, moderate Alliance Party.
Ousting Foster is a move that hopes to stem losses to the TUV, but it will only exacerbate the existing trend of progressive unionists switching their support to Alliance. That is the huge long-term challenge for unionism: as demographics change, the unionist majority is getting smaller and smaller, the group of unaligned voters gets bigger (voting Alliance, for example), and the nationalist vote share remains largely the same. That means Sinn Féin could soon overtake the DUP as the largest party in the executive, while the case for a border poll is growing stronger, and some of those who used to fall under “unionist” are now “unaligned” and open to persuasion on the issue. That’s not just the DUP’s problem, that is unionism’s great crisis laid bare.
Whether Johnson will soon face the same fate as Foster is the big question in the ongoing saga over the Downing Street flat refurbishment. Some of that will depend on what the Electoral Commission – and potentially the parliamentary commissioner for standards, who could investigate Johnson personally – concludes, and whether it turns into a scandal for the Conservative Party or for the Prime Minister personally.
But a large part of it also comes back to what happens here, in Hartlepool, and in the other elections on 6 May.
The Conservative Party’s relationship with Johnson has always been transactional: they put up with scandals, he wins them elections. There are certainly no personal loyalties to Johnson among parliamentary colleagues. As with Foster, it all comes down to whether his party continues to find him a winner, or whether the latest saga is a scandal too far.