In a hung parliament, the DUP faces both risk and opportunity

Arlene Foster's party is in a bind over Brexit, but could retain some influence — provided it is prepared to make tough choices.

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There was a revealing exchange between the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr and Boris Johnson during a Commons debate in late October, just before parliament was dissolved for the election. Paisley asked the Prime Minister whether, if returned with a majority, he intended to travel to Brussels to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit withdrawal agreement — to which the DUP is so implacably opposed. 

Johnson offered an unambiguous “no” in response: the revised deal he had secured, he told Paisley, would be the final offer from the EU and his government. Every single Conservative candidate — including the four standing in Northern Ireland — has since pledged to facilitate its passage through the Commons. 

That this is now the settled will of the Tory party poses an impossible question for the DUP, which is asking its electorate to return a “strong team” of MPs to Westminster so that they might force Johnson to change course once more. If the Conservatives are returned with a sizeable majority, they will be able to do no such thing. 

What, then, is the best Arlene Foster’s party might hope for? The obvious answer is another hung parliament. Though its unprecedented influence in the 2017 parliament was an accident of circumstance and electoral arithmetic that is unlikely to be repeated, the DUP will have an advantage should Boris Johnson fall just short of a majority — it is just about the only party that the Conservatives can hope to deal with in a hung parliament. 

Both Foster and Nigel Dodds, her deputy and the party’s Westminster leader, have insisted that they can retain influence even if Johnson wins a majority. “I don’t worry about it, because there’s nothing that I can do,” Dodds told me in Belfast last month. “The figures are what they are. When the results are in, we will deal with whatever comes up. But I suspect strongly at this stage that the DUP’s votes will still be important in the next parliament.

“The reality is that during that period, we were involved in a number of very important areas with the government… So even with a majority, the government - unless it’s a whopping majority - our votes will be in play, and will matter.” 

What they might use them for beyond mitigating Johnson’s deal — if that is at all possible — is another question. We know from countless statements from Dodds and his Westminster colleagues that DUP votes will not install Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. That would appear to constrain their leverage in a hung parliament: as long as Corbyn remains Labour leader, they have nowhere else to go. 

But that roadblock might yet be lifted, as Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s chief whip, acknowledged late last month. Asked repeatedly on a special edition of Newsnight whether the DUP could ever support a second referendum or a minority government that proposed one, Donaldson said only that it was not an idea to be considered “at this stage”, in what appeared to be a calculated shift in position. It offered an intriguing glimpse of how the DUP’s strategic priorities at Westminster might change should Dodds lose his seat and be replaced by Donaldson. 

It also spoke to an even more fundamental truth. The inescapable logic of the DUP’s position on both May and Johnson’s withdrawal agreements — namely that both pose existential threats to the Union — has always dictated that their support for the principle of Brexit should eventually be replaced by support for Remain. That won’t be its first priority in a hung parliament. But, as Donaldson said, Corbyn won’t be Labour leader forever. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.