The DUP pledge to support May in a confidence vote – but they could still trigger an election

The party’s promise to support the government if the withdrawal agreement is voted down is heavily conditional.

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The confidence and supply agreement is dead. Long live the confidence and supply agreement! Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, has told the weekly meeting of European Research Group MPs that his party will support the government in a vote of confidence if the withdrawal agreement is voted down.

Given what we already know – that Theresa May’s Brexit deal is certain to be defeated and that Labour will table a confidence motion in the immediate aftermath – his pledge of support for the government appears to answer the question of whether there will be a general election in the short term.

A vote of confidence under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act requires only a simple majority, and as such the chances of May surviving the defeat of the withdrawal agreement depend on the DUP’s 10 MPs, who have done their best to demonstrate that Conservatives cannot do anything without their support over the past fortnight.

The Times reported earlier this week that the DUP had not ruled out voting against the prime minister should a confidence motion be moved. But that they have done so this evening isn’t all that surprising. Dodds told the ERG the government risked losing their support and an election if the withdrawal agreement passed, which is a moot point – it won’t.

The more sensible wing of the ERG has long been cautious on moving to bring down the government in the wake of the deal falling for the simple fact that the deal – and everything they hate about it – will have been defeated. While there is a straightforward argument in favour of Tory Eurosceptics and the DUP trying to bring the government down in the wake of the withdrawal agreement passing, it would make no sense for either group, but particularly the unionists, to respond to its defeat by ending this parliament and with it their unprecedented influence (and risking the loss of Remain-majority seats where they have narrow majorities, not least Dodds’ own of North Belfast).

That isn’t to say, however, that the DUP have been bluffing all of this time and that Dodds didn’t mean it when he told May that he did not fear an election in the Commons yesterday. The pledge he made was very specific and does not amount to an unconditional guarantee that they will keep the Tories in office whatever happens. Rather, they have confirmed, predictably, that they will keep them in power unless and until (to borrow the language of the backstop) it becomes clear that their Brexit deal does not satisfy their red lines.

In that sense, tonight’s intervention by Dodds is far from conclusive and a more significant question remains: how will the government use their reprieve, and how will the DUP respond to that? Given the unlikelihood that May will be able to concoct any solution that squares the circles of Tory party management and satisfies her allies’ demands on the union, it is far too soon to rule out a general election just yet.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.