Say hello to minority government: The DUP are on strike

The party’s nine MPs are abstaining on almost every vote on budget legislation tonight. 

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The DUP has gone on strike. Its nine MPs – the 10th, Ian Paisley Jr, returns from suspension tomorrow – are abstaining on all votes on the finance bill, with the exception of one Labour amendment on child poverty, which they will vote for. 

Cue the declarations that Theresa May has entered minority government and the Conservatives’ confidence and supply deal in dead. Though those declarations aren’t wrong, in truth they are a bit late. As I wrote last Friday, the DUP has been wilfully ignoring the letter of its agreement with the government for weeks – first on Brexit votes, and now on budget legislation. 

There is another argument to the contrary that you hear from sources familiar with the agreement’s drafting. They say it is the government, not the DUP, who are flouting the agreement, as the latter signed it on the basis that it would be supporting something more than Brexit in name only. In either case, the agreement is functionally dead and with tonight’s withdrawal of support the DUP is seeking to demonstrate that only it can provide confidence and supply to a Conservative government that satisfies its red line, and that this one isn’t it. 

For government whips, it is a rude reminder of just how unfriendly the Commons arithmetic is for the prime minister: they had already been forced to climb down and accept an amendment sponsored by 11 Remain-leaning Tories, including Jo Johnson, that called for the release of economic impact assessments on the Brexit deal. The DUP’s withdrawal of support is altogether more serious. 

It’s also worth noting that the only amendment the party will support bears the names of, among others, Jeremy Corbyn and John “it's about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle” McDonnell. It’s a truism in Westminster – and one frequently recited by complacent Tories – that the DUP would never walk through the lobbies with these people or otherwise destabilise the government to their benefit. Their vote with the opposition sends a clear message: think again. (Nigel Dodds also praised Corbyn's attack lines on the backstop, which is identical to his, in the Commons last week.)

For the ERG leadership, meanwhile, it offers some cheer on a trying day. As its drive for 48 letters falters, they hope to weaponise the DUP’s abstention as evidence that Theresa May’s premiership is over as a going concern, and not just on Brexit. Their argument is that if she cannot command a majority for budget votes, she cannot govern full stop and only a change of leadership will avert the collapse of her administration and with it this parliament. Tonight's votes will give that argument some credibility. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.