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DUP refuse to name preferred Conservative leader... but they must deliver Brexit

Boris Johnson speaking at last year’s DUP annual conference in Belfast
Boris Johnson speaking at last year’s DUP annual conference in Belfast
Michael Gove outside his London home yesterday
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

DUP MPs have insisted the next Conservative leader must be someone who will deliver on Brexit - but stopped short of naming their preferred choice.

It came as the battle for Downing Street hotted up, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove and former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab entering the contest.

Theresa May announced on Friday she would be standing down as Tory leader on June 7, saying it was time for another Prime Minister to try to deliver Brexit.

Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, is favourite to succeed Mrs May. He is one of eight candidates to so far declare their intention to run for the leadership.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party would be "listening very carefully" to what each of the candidates has to say about Brexit and, in particular, around the backstop.

Yesterday, three of the party's most prominent MPs declined to state their preference, saying it was a matter for the Conservative Party.

However, they did indicate it would need to be someone who could deliver Brexit and scrap the backstop, which the DUP is fiercely opposed to.

Writing in this newspaper, academic Prof Jon Tonge, who has written a book about the DUP, indicated Mr Johnson or Mr Gove would likely be the party's preferred picks.

And he believes that Mr Gove's scepticism around the 1998 Agreement would appeal to many.

"Success for Gove would probably please the DUP, as he is one of the few Conservatives who has always been Good Friday Agreement-sceptic," he said.

"In common with the DUP, Gove (writing in 2000) argued that the 1998 deal was a capitulation to republicans and that a military solution - the defeat of the IRA - would have been better."

The DUP struck a confidence and supply deal with Mrs May to keep her in power in the wake of the 2017 General Election, which left the Tories short of a Commons majority.

The Westminster arrangement which saw the DUP's 10 MPs vote with the Government on key issues delivered a £1bn funding package to Northern Ireland.

But the party has been particularly critical of Mrs May in recent months for her handling of the Brexit process.

It was opposed to the contentious border backstop element of the deal Mrs May struck with the EU, claiming it would see Northern Ireland treated differently to the rest of the UK.

DUP MPs would not be drawn on who they would like to see as the next Conservative leader, when contacted by the Belfast Telegraph yesterday.

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley would only say that the choice of Mrs May's successor was "entirely a matter for the Tory Party".

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson added: "It wouldn't be appropriate for the DUP to be seen to be backing a particular candidate. However, we are clear that we want someone who will deliver Brexit and help us to address issues around the backstop.

"We will view any leadership contender in that light and await the outcome of the contest."

East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell said: "When we were choosing our party leader, we wouldn't have relished or welcomed any intervention from Tories about who we should choose, so it's a matter for them.

"Hopefully it will be someone who sees the problems that have to be resolved (around Brexit) and is able and prepared to do so. In particular, I hope it's somebody who gets the importance of the backstop issue being resolved and understands the need to drive home to Europe that there is no such thing as a hard border.

"It's a total impossibility, so we have to get beyond that fear of creating something that can't come about."

DUP Strangford MP Jim Shannon hinted that he had a preferred candidate, but would not reveal their identity.

He said: "The best result will be someone who leads the party forward to deliver on the referendum result of 2016, but who that will be is the responsibility of the Conservative party.

"I really hope that the person chosen has the ability, commitment and the wherewithal to negotiate, unlike the previous Prime Minister who unfortunately didn't have that long-term understanding of the position of Northern Ireland.

"Our only red line was and continues to be the backstop and we hope that after this three year Brexit process the new leader will be able to deliver on that and secure our position within the United Kingdom."

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland minister John Penrose has thrown his support behind Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, saying that he is the ideal choice to "heal Brexit wounds".

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, the MP for Weston-super-Mare said that for him, Mr Hunt "stands out" among "plenty of credible candidates".

Yesterday Mr Gove became the eighth candidate to enter the race after Mr Hunt, Mr Johnson, Mr Raab, Esther McVey, Andrea Leadsom, Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart.

The new Tory leader looks set to take over as Prime Minister at the end of July.

The timetable for the contest will see nominations close in the week of June 10, with MPs involved in a series of votes to whittle down the crowded field to a final two contenders.

Tory Party members will then decide who wins the run-off.

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