The DUP’s confidence and supply agreement is dead, but it doesn’t matter

The collapse of the DUP’s confidence and supply agreement with the government suits the party: it shows that only the DUP has the ability to provide a Tory government with both of those things.

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One of the many lessons to be drawn from the Brexit process is that the DUP won’t tolerate any divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – except, perhaps, when it comes to its own briefing operation.

The Telegraph reported last night that sources close to Arlene Foster had declared the party’s confidence and supply agreement dead. That suggestion was promptly knocked down by Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s chief whip, within minutes of it breaking. So who is right?

There are two important things to note here. The first is that although Foster is nominally the DUP’s leader, the show is really run by Donaldson and Nigel Dodds, its Westminster leader and Foster’s notional deputy. This is a natural consequence of the fact that Foster is a member of an assembly that is not sitting rather than a member of the parliament where her party holds the balance of power.

When it comes to parliamentary business, what Donaldson and Dodds say is a more useful guide to reality than what Team Foster might be briefing at any given moment. The DUP’s teams in Westminster and Belfast often diverge to one degree or another but here the really striking thing is that there is a degree of divergence between Dodds and Donaldson. The former is talking as if the agreement is already finished, while the latter is stressing that it isn’t quite yet.

While the unionist Kremlinology is interesting, it’s arguable that this doesn’t matter. Though the DUP has stressed with appropriate menace that the agreement it signed in 2017 – which bears Donaldson’s signature and that of Gavin Williamson rather than those of Foster and Theresa May – is with the Conservative Party and not the Prime Minister, it is quite obviously ignoring the letter of that agreement, which pledges its support for the government on Brexit votes.

Highlighting the fact that the DUP’s agreement is with the party and not May merely emphasises the fact that it is no longer a going concern. She is, after all, still Tory leader and her government sets the parliamentary agenda that the DUP are strictly speaking obliged to support. The confidence and supply agreement cannot function as written unless the DUP gives the support it stipulates to the leader of the Conservative Party who actually exists, not the currently imaginary one who wouldn’t acquiesce to a backstop deal on the Irish border.

The DUP has no intention of doing that – neither on Brexit, nor on the ill-timed votes on the Budget on Monday or Tuesday. So yes, its confidence and supply ­agreement with this Tory government is dead. But what it retains is the ability to provide a Tory government with both of those things. That is the fundamental message in everything it is doing: without pursuing a Brexit strategy that satisfies its red line on the union, the Conservatives will not be able to run a working majority (which means Brexiteers won't cave and accept that an Irish Sea border is a price worth paying for a hard Brexit). Accordingly, its support has become integral to the ERG’s strategy. The calculation is that DUP votes against the finance bill next week will prove conclusively to a critical mass of the Conservative Party that May has lost her majority once and for all and must go.  

Increasing the leverage available to the DUP at this acute point of pain for the PM is the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which, as Downing Street has already admitted, allows the DUP to vote against the government on the Budget as many times as it pleases without triggering a confidence vote. For the DUP, that ensures the survival of a parliament where it retains its historic best of ten seats and the whip hand over both the Conservative government and its Eurosceptic counter-insurgency. The confidence and supply agreement is dead. But it’s for that reason that the DUP’s parliamentary influence is greater than ever before.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.