The DUP won't support a second referendum - but here's what it might

Beyond Remain and Boris Johnson's deal, Arlene Foster's party has ruled nothing out - including a customs union.

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The decision of DUP MPs to vote against the government and back the Letwin amendment yesterday has raised a hitherto forlorn hope among Remainers on the opposition benches: might a majority for a second referendum exist after all? Speaking after yesterday’s vote, Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, said the party would back any amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill that preserved the union. 

Given what we know about how the 10 DUP MPs define preserving the union - that is, preventing a customs and to a lesser extent regulatory border in the Irish Sea - there are only three broad types of amendment they might support. The first, which would replace the new Northern Ireland protocol of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal with a technological border solution, won’t fly in Brussels - or Westminster. That leaves just two: a softer Brexit for the entire United Kingdom, or no Brexit at all. 

Speaking on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show this morning, Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, invited the DUP to discuss the latter option - and lend their support to a second referendum amendment. Starmer has sought DUP support for Labour measures before, to no avail. But might it work this time?

Not according to the DUP, whose MPs have clarified their position with a new form of words this morning. Here’s Sammy Wilson, its Brexit spokesman: 

“The DUP does not seek a second referendum, merely implementation of the first. The people of the United Kingdom were asked whether the UK should leave the EU, not whether Great Britain should leave Northern Ireland behind.”

South Belfast MP Emma Little-Pengelly struck the same note on BBC Northern Ireland’s Sunday Politics this morning:

“Our position, absolutely clearly, is that we believe that the first referendum, voted on by the people of the United Kingdom, should be implemented. Of course, it’s important to remember that that referendum was not a referendum for Great Britain to leave the European Union and to leave Northern Ireland behind, it was a UK referendum. 

“And what we’ve said is that the entire UK must leave, and must leave in a way that is good and sensible for all of the parts. And that must include something that is good for Northern Ireland.”

Both MPs stopped some distance short of what Nigel Dodds said the last time Conservative Brexiteers abandoned the DUP in the Commons - the third meaningful vote on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, in March. Then, their leader said preserving the union’s economic and constitutional status quo was so important he would sooner remain in the EU than licence any plan that jeopardised it. That might be the logical endpoint of the DUP’s unionist logic, but it is clearly neither their political preference nor a workable strategy for the coming week. With or without the DUP, the numbers for a second referendum do not exist.

But on one thing Dodds and his MPs are unambiguous: it is prepared to support any measure that would see Northern Ireland leave on broadly equal terms to the rest of Great Britain. It is especially notable that they are not stipulating that it must apply identically, merely that it must be “good and sensible” for Northern Ireland. Despite their popular reputation as unyielding veto players, we saw earlier this month that they do not define those words prescriptively, and are in fact willing to compromise when the circumstances suit them - most notably on new regulatory checks in the Irish Sea. 

That suggests that a customs union for the entire UK is likely to be palatable to the DUP, which poses another problem for Downing Street. Labour will table an amendment to that effect. It is not only their erstwhile parliamentary allies who, given the chance, would sooner support it than Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, but Labour MPs who want a deal - and many of the 21 ex-Conservative rebels too.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.