DUP insiders have predicted that a change of leader could have sweeping repercussions at Stormont, with any successor axing key members of the current ministerial team.
hey predicted that Education Minister Peter Weir and Economy Minister Diane Dodds may not survive since any successor to Arlene Foster would want to choose their own ministers.
Some in the party said the changes would have to go even further, with the positions of special advisers and unelected party officials also in jeopardy.
“There must be root-and-branch reform, not token changes,” one warned.
Mrs Foster’s leadership was last night hanging by a thread, with reports of at least 27 of the DUP’s 41 representatives at Stormont and Westminster signing a letter of no-confidence. Sources said only five of the party’s 28 MLAs did not sign.
They predicted that Mrs Foster could resign rather than fight a possible leadership contest.
Last night, she posted a Biblical quote on Facebook: “It is God who arms me with strength and keeps me secure.”
There is speculation that if she departed as leader, she would also stand down as Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA.
Possible successors at Stormont include Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots or his close ally Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan.
There is also talk of splitting the role of First Minister and party leader, with the latter being an MP.
Several sources cited Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as a potential leader from Westminster, but others are critical of his failure to move against Mrs Foster and accuse him of lacking conviction.
East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, who has been loyal to the leader, was seen by some as a contender, but hardliners said liberal stances by his wife on gay conversion therapy and other issues had “damaged” him.
Those moving against Mrs Foster are also highly critical of deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who played a prominent role in Brexit negotiations.
Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart has been mentioned as a possible new deputy leader if there is change. Only MPs and MLAs will be able to vote in any future leadership contest.
A letter from DUP councillors has also been sent to party chairman Lord Morrow. They say they are “severely worried” about the state of the party and call on Mrs Foster and Mr Dodds to go.
“We as councillors and as members are deeply concerned about the future of unionism, Ulster conservatism and the DUP,” they say. “We have received the brunt of the anger from our voter base caused by ineffective leadership.”
Mrs Foster’s abstention in an Assembly vote on gay conversion therapy has combined with loyalist opposition to the Irish Sea border to make her position seem untenable.
DUP sources said it was “almost impossible” for her to now remain as leader. “I can’t see how she holds on. There are too many people who have no faith in her. There is nothing she can do to change that. This is not just mutterings of discontent, as we’ve had before. This is the real McCoy,” one said.
Mrs Foster pulled out of a planned meeting with the Secretary of State Brandon Lewis yesterday evening.
Earlier, she said she had “bigger things to worry about” when asked about reports that her party leadership was under threat.
Speaking during a visit to Hammer Youth Centre in the Shankill, she said that she would not be distracted from the work she has to do as First Minister.
“Stories on leadership come up from time to time. This is one of those times,” she said.
“So we’ll just deal with it and move on because I’ve bigger things to do, including getting us through this Covid pandemic, including listening to the concerns of working-class communities.
“These stories come up from time to time. This is no different. I haven’t received any letters from constituency associations, so I’m not going to get into a running commentary on these issues.
“It’s important to note that there is the big job of work to do. We have a year left of this mandate. It’s important that we lift our eyes and continue the work of rolling out of the restrictions (and) dealing with the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
Mr Weir voiced his full support for her as leader. In a statement, the DUP, said it conducted its business in accordance with its constitution and rules.
It added: “The officers of the party oversee the conduct and organisation of its internal democratic electoral processes.
“Whilst understanding that there will be from time-to-time public interest in party processes, these issues, in the first instance, are matters for members of the party, and we are not able to make any further comment at this time.”