Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: What DUP really thinks of Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson at the DUP conference
Boris Johnson at the DUP conference
Boris Johnson on previous visit here
Boris Johnson yesterday on the eve of Tory vote
Jeremy Hunt
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

A DUP MP tells a story about Boris Johnson that offers a telling insight into the man who is on course to become Prime Minister today.

The pair were chatting in a lift at Westminster. BoJo looked remarkably well-turned out. Suddenly, he reached up and tousled his neat hair. Camera crews and journalists were waiting for him when he exited, and the trademark messy mop is part of the performance.

The DUP leadership officially stayed out of the Tory leadership campaign. But privately it was very much in the Boris camp.

When the two Tory leadership contenders were in town for a hustings event earlier this month, it was BoJo alone who secured a photo opportunity with Arlene Foster.

They stood regally together on an outside balcony at Stormont, looking down at the city below.

Yet it will be far from plain sailing in that relationship in the weeks and months ahead.

Every DUP politician I've spoken to likes Johnson personally and speaks affectionately of him. But do they trust him? Absolutely not.

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That the DUP enjoys Boris is unsurprising. A party founded and led by the Rev Ian Paisley for 40 years has a soft spot for a showman.

Paisley topped the poll in European elections in the days when the DUP very much played second fiddle to the Ulster Unionists.

Boris too has an appeal beyond his party which is of course why many Conservative MPs, deeply sceptical about his pedigree, held their noses and voted for him.

Jeremy Hunt was too much in the mould of Theresa May. The Tories have tried a female version of John Major. It didn't work so they're opting for somebody completely different.

Yet Johnson will still face exactly the same problems as his predecessor. In order to break the current parliamentary logjam, DUP sources believe he may well go to the polls.

"Look, he's set to become Tory leader because he can win elections," says a party insider.

"That's what he's good at. He was elected Mayor of London, a Labour city through and through, not once but twice.

"We certainly wouldn't be surprised if he decided on an early election. The Tories need MPs elected who can deliver Brexit."

The presence in Johnson's campaign team of former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson - a long-term DUP ally in Parliament - has reassured the party but it remains nervous of what the new Prime Minister might do.

His U-turn over the withdrawal agreement in the spring confirmed DUP suspicions that he will abandon them if the need arises.

Johnson will head to Brussels to attempt to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement. The DUP and other Brexiteers like his 'can do' spirit compared to what they saw as Theresa May's negativity.

The EU's realisation that Number 10 is now up for no-deal may give him greater leverage.

But if Brussels doesn't budge there is a danger for the DUP that, despite his current bravado, Johnson will return to the original plan of a Northern-Ireland only backstop with a border in the Irish Sea.

After all, he is no stranger to U-turns. Returned as MP for the west London constituency of Uxbridge in 2015, he pledged to oppose the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

Indeed, he famously once said he would be prepared to "lie down in front of bulldozers" to prevent a third runway being built.

Fast forward to a key parliamentary vote on the issue when he was Foreign Secretary. Johnson was missing after a hastily arranged trip to Afghanistan.

A future flip-flop on the backstop would hardly be out of character. A DUP MP said: "There is a misapprehension out there that we think he's a great fellow and that we've hitched our wagon to him.

"We have no such illusions. We are cognisant from the get-go that ultimately Boris will look after Boris."

Unlike English nationalist Brexiteers, Johnson is instinctively a unionist. He has made many trips to Northern Ireland over the years. In one high-profile visit in 2016 as London Mayor, he announced a £60m deal to buy 200 new 'Boris buses' from Ballymena's Wrightbus.

He cut a striking figure for DUP grassroots when he was the guest speaker at their annual conference last November.

"He arrived with his backpack and a whole armful of papers," recalls one activist.

"He told us he was writing a book but his laptop didn't always power up so he prefers to write in long-hand first and then he'll type it later."

Amidst speculation that Johnson will pack his new Cabinet with women, one female who most likely won't be there is Karen Bradley. The Secretary of State has privately told associates she knows her days are numbered.

Expect the new Prime Minister in Northern Ireland fairly soon. His visits will certainly be different for the media from those of his predecessor.

Journalists won't struggle to find a quote. For better or for worse, the Maybot is moving over for box office Boris.

Belfast Telegraph


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