What is the DUP playing at on Brexit?

Nigel Dodds has turned up the heat on the government over the Irish backstop.

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Backstop me if you think you’ve heard this one before: the DUP is at loggerheads with the government again. Nigel Dodds, the party’s leader in Westminster, has joined Tory Brexiteers in demanding that the Irish backstop deal  – the legal mechanism for avoiding a hard border – must contain a specific end date.

The EU27 says the opposite – they conceive the backstop as an insurance policy against the policies of future British governments and as such say that it would be pointless if time-limited. The Irish government has made that position repeatedly clear over the past week.

When triggered, which it is certain to be once the transition period ends, the backstop will keep the entire United Kingdom in something that looks and acts an awful lot like the customs union, as well as continued regulatory alignment with the EU. That isn’t the Brexit a lot of Tories want but it would respect the DUP’s red line on maintaining the integrity of the union.

Or would it? Dodds has sent several tweets this afternoon that will make incredibly uncomfortable reading for Downing Street.

On many occasions both the PM and the Brexit Secretary said the backstop would be time limited. This is critical. If it isn’t then the UK including Northen Ireland would be trapped in unacceptable arrangements unless and until the EU decide otherwise

— Nigel Dodds (@NigelDoddsDUP) October 12, 2018

So we will get the date it ends? https://t.co/8q542QC0z3

— Nigel Dodds (@NigelDoddsDUP) October 12, 2018


What is Dodds playing at? Whatever backstop the government agrees to is likely to apply to the whole United Kingdom. That any Brexit deal should work on that basis is ultimately the DUP’s most important red line. One would expect an all-UK backstop to satisfy them on that basis, if no other.

But this one doesn’t. There are several reasons for this; the most simple being that the DUP are Brexiteers, like Boris Johnson and the European Research Group, who do not like the idea of a limitless limit (an ERG source points out that this has always been the case). It would leave the entire UK as a rule-taker for an extended and potentially indefinite period of time. The so-called vassalage that the unionists object to for Northern Ireland would instead burden everyone. Parliament’s Leavers have less in common than is often assumed but an aversion to rule-taking from Brussels is one of them.

As ever with the DUP, though, there is a more strategic self-interest at play too. There has been considerable frustration from Conservative Brexiteers, most notably those who have quit government posts since Chequers, that, as far as they understand it, the government is letting the tail wag the dog. They do not believe the Irish border should be allowed to stand in the way of a Canada-style free trade agreement.

Of course, the easiest way for the UK to deal with this would be to agree to some sort of special status for Northern Ireland and a border in the Irish Sea. The last thing the DUP needs or wants is for this group of Conservative MPs to accept that Northern Ireland would be the price of Canada.

This burst of belligerence from Dodds, then, is as much about reassuring Tory Eurosceptics that the DUP MPs are Proper Brexiteers as it is about putting the fright into Downing Street. Signalling with such enthusiastic menace that they are on the same side as the ERG and won’t agree to a fudge shores up Tory opposition to a border in the Irish Sea. And that they are on the same page on a backstop severely limits May’s room for manoeuvre. The message they are sending to the Prime Minister is that she cannot hope to win the DUP’s support for a time-limited backstop without a real time limit, so she shouldn’t bother trying.

Were she to try, the fundamental risk for the DUP is that Tory rebels would revolt and engineer a scenario that brought this parliament – and with it the cushy Commons arithmetic that gives it the whip hand – to a premature end. That is too much of a risk for the party to bear. It’s not so much the potential for prime minister Corbyn that poses a danger, but the danger of diminished returns. The ten-seat haul the DUP won at the last election was a historic best. It could easily be reduced by one or two. There is no reason for the party to risk a parliament that reduced its representation or leverage.

The DUP’s endgame is as much about avoiding that scenario as it is engineering a Brexit that protects the constitutional integrity of the UK as they define it. Indeed, it might say those aims are one and the same. But even if it gets its way, there is no way the EU will accept it. Difficult times await.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.