For the DUP, nothing has changed. So why do we keep hearing otherwise?

Nigel Dodds’ attack on Theresa May highlights the extent to which Westminster mistakes a change of tone for a change of substance.

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Last week, it was widely assumed that the DUP were about to abandon their opposition to the withdrawal agreement in exchange for a package of legal assurances on the Irish backstop and, as much as it was denied, a package of cash for Northern Ireland. 

Nigel Dodds disabuses Westminster of those assumptions in a stinging attack on Theresa May this afternoon:

The prime minister missed an opportunity at the EU Council to put forward proposals which could have improved the prospects of an acceptable withdrawal agreement and help unite the country.

That failure is all the more disappointing and inexcusable given the clear divisions and arguments which became evident amongst EU member states when faced with outcomes they don't like.

As we have always said, negotiations with the EU inevitably go down to the wire and the government has been far too willing to capitulate before securing the necessary changes which would get an agreement through the House of Commons.

The government has consistently settled for inferior compromises when they didn't need to and when there was, and is, more negotiating with the EU to be done.

Lectures by the prime minister putting the blame on others cannot disguise the responsibility her government bears for the current debacle and the fact that her agreement has been twice overwhelmingly rejected in parliament.

The prime minister has now agreed with the EU to kick the can down the road for another two weeks and humiliatingly revoke her oft-stated pledge that the UK would leave the EU on 29 March.

Nothing has changed as far as the withdrawal agreement is concerned.

Nothing fundamentally turns on the formal ratification of documents which the attorney general has already said do not change the risk of the UK being trapped in the backstop.

The DUP has been very clear throughout that we want a deal which delivers on the referendum result and which works for all parts of the UK and for the EU as well. But it must be a deal that protects the Union.

That remains our abiding principle. We will not accept any deal which poses a long term risk to the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.

As Dodds himself says, nothing has changed. The DUP still wants something the government can’t and won’t provide: legally binding alterations to the withdrawal agreement.

Why, then, do we keep hearing otherwise? A category error Westminster makes when it considers what the DUP is saying about Brexit is to confuse a change of tone with a change of substance. Another is to infer a change of substance – or a lack of it – from their silence. 

Both Downing Street and Fleet Street have laboured under this affliction throughout the Brexit process. Arlene Foster and her MPs have articulated time and time again that their ultimate objection to Theresa May’s Brexit deal is that the Irish backstop would result in new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. 

Their opposition, absolutist though its justification may be, really is that simple. The only way to get rid of it is to answer that fundamental question. The party’s leadership has always been clear that the means – be it change to the withdrawal agreement, a Norway-style Brexit for the whole UK or new legal advice on the backstop from Geoffrey Cox – are much less important than the ends.

What it has never done is even imply that the question has changed. So it was strange when, as they met cabinet ministers for discussions last week, Westminster assumed that the DUP was about to climb down. Strange, but not at all surprising: this Tory government, after all, is an administration that parses its coalition partner’s press releases in order to contrive a reason to believe it doesn’t mean the only thing it says on Brexit with any consistency. 

In November, Downing Street hopefully and misguidedly briefed that the DUP could accept regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, rather than vice versa, when a statement from Arlene Foster neglected to mention them – as if a market isn’t somewhere you can both buy and sell. 

The conclusion drawn last week, when Nigel Dodds, her deputy and the party’s Westminster leader, said the DUP wanted a deal, was just as off. There was no indication at all that those fundamental criteria had changed. If anything, the party’s talks with the government – and the demands for, and offers of, a new package of domestic assurances on preventing regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – have merely added another layer of conditionality. The price is still too high – and the longer the government refuses to engage with that truth, it will only increase.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.