Why a council by-election in Antrim could lead to an early election or a no-deal Brexit

Arlene Foster has increased the pressure on Theresa May again.

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The DUP might be at war with the government in Westminster, but at home, it is fighting a rearguard action on a second front. One of the most striking things about the party’s uncompromising opposition to Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement is the extent to which it has left them isolated in civil society, a fact not lost on the prime minister. 

While the DUP is loudly opposed to the withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland’s business community and farming industry, schmoozed by May at Downing Street this week, take the opposite view. They have urged the DUP to back the deal and have recieved varying degrees of indifference and contempt in return – Sammy Wilson, its Brexit spokesman, derided them as the “puppets of the Northern Ireland Office”.

That sort of fiery rhetoric is more in keeping with how the DUP used to want to be seen - a party of intransigent opposition - rather than how it has marketed itself recently: of the new, proud of and keen to advertise its influence on Whitehall and Westminster and defining itself against its prospective partners at Stormont as a responsible party of government. As its ten MPs prepare to vote down the withdrawal agreement and with it drastically increase the chances of a no-deal Brexit, the tensions and contradictions between those two images of the DUP are obvious.

As that parliamentary moment of truth approaches, the stakes are high and the backlash from civil society is already apparent. So what explains the DUP’s refusal to yield even an inch to the will of the prime minister over whom it holds the whip hand and the businesses whose political interests it makes much of representing?

The answer lies in the result of the most significant electoral event of the Article 50 process. There is obviously a strong case that last year’s general election deserves that mantle – the hung parliament that resulted is the reason why the Westminster press pack is spending its Saturday in a hotel in suburban Belfast – but arguably it ought to go to one in which only 2,873 votes were cast: last month’s by-election to the Carrick Castle ward on Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, which the DUP won at a canter on an increased vote share. 

Parochial maybe, but as the old saw goes, all politics is local. The victor, Peter Johnson, introduced Arlene Foster and got a mention at the very top of her speech.

“We’re fortunate to have Mr Johnson with us this afternoon. He has strong electoral appeal, possesses youth and energy and has a big political future. Not you, Boris, but Councillor Peter Johnson, our newly elected representative in Carrickfergus. 

“Let me again congratulate Peter and the East Antrim team on the by-election victory. We were all delighted when Peter gained an extra seat for the party taking what had been an independent seat and pushing the DUP vote share in the area up by 11%, with a 40% first preference advantage over the nearest rival candidate.”

As far as the DUP leadership is concerned, that result – which came at the height of negative publicity over the party’s role in the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that collapsed the last Stormont executive and well after it became clear that it would oppose the sort of deal Theresa May was seeking – is confirmation that it is completely hegemonic as an electoral force within the unionist community, with no plausible challenger to its dominance. Nigel Dodds acknowledged this explicitly in his speech: “Other unionist politics may be opportunist and short term, but I have no doubt where most grassroots unionists stand.”

That it has not paid any electoral price for its absolutism explains why the DUP will not budge on Brexit or the backstop, and if anything incentivises intransigence in the immediate term. At present, they only stand to benefit. Separate to this, of course, is the question of whether this strategy is necessarily wise or far-sighted as far as its ultimate strategic interest – securing Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom – goes. But the fundamental lesson from that by-election result – and this conference – is that, as long as Brexit is a live issue, the party’s MPs are not for turning on the backstop and nor do they need to be.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.