Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: DUP and SF will be quietly confident of holding seats if Boris's debacle concludes with election

Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

So apart from no Brexit, no majority and no election, not a bad week for Boris Johnson then.

A hat-trick of defeats in his first three parliamentary votes as Prime Minister.

At this rate he will want to permanently prorogue the Commons.

The Government is left in office but bereft of power after a series of outrageous strategic blunders.

Some responsibility for the debacle has been attributed to Dominic Cummings.

The Government's special adviser was hailed as a genius for his role as director of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.

But the suspicion now is that he just got lucky.

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The polls always showed a majority for Leave.

Cummings could have slept through the campaign for all the difference he made to the result.

And now it appears he is entirely unsuited for the subtleties of advising a Cabinet on how to keep parliament and party onside.

To turn a Government majority of one into an Opposition majority of 42 is some feat.

The ludicrous removal of the Conservative whip from 21 MPs with a combined 356 years of parliamentary service could irreparably damage a party supposedly on an election footing.

The threat to deselect Conservative supporters of the Opposition's blocking of a no-deal Brexit emerged last weekend. It immediately looked a spectacular miscalculation, based upon the naive assumption that those opposed to a no-deal were softies, who would come to heel under pressure from the party machine.

Yet a large portion of those Conservatives backing the Opposition had been part of that machine, were not careerists and have strong principles.

They were utterly impervious to Boris's bullying.

The whipping operation was roundly condemned at last night's 1922 Committee meeting of Conservative backbenchers.

The outcome is that the Conservative Party conference in Manchester at the end of the month will now contain more rebels than a Sinn Fein ard fheis.

What should have been the party's election launchpad is more likely to be a continuation of a civil war.

The party leadership needs to quickly restore the whip but this will be an embarrassing climbdown.

It is too late anyway in several cases amid desertions and new career choices from the rebels.

Watching the Government's humiliation with interest - but also some detachment - have been the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Social media is never the DUP's biggest fan and there has been much jubilation at the ending of the party's kingmaker role.

But the DUP - and Sinn Fein - will still be more confident than some parties of retaining most or all their parliamentary seats in the autumn election, which remains probable.

None of the DUP's three Belfast seats are safe - but they might all be defendable, even in the south and east of the city against an Alliance surge unlikely to vanish.

Boris Johnson's travails are not necessarily the disaster for the DUP that is seemingly popular wisdom.

Arlene Foster's party had already milked the Conservative government cash cow nearly dry.

The EU-Theresa May backstop solution dreaded by the DUP is far from dead but not yet approved by a parliament that can still only decide what it does not want, not what it desires.

That leaves two possibilities: remaining in the EU after endless delayed departures - which gets the DUP off its difficult Brexit hook and might help preserve the Union - or a no-deal Brexit, fine by the DUP but now a less likely scenario.

Seemingly only a big overall Conservative election victory can now deliver Brexit.

A Labour majority government might renege on its referendum promise and any minority government will be mired in the same type of stalemate we are currently enduring.

It's been a crazy week. And it's only Thursday.

If only university politics departments could prorogue the start of term…

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and Director of the ESRC 2010, 2015 and 2017 Northern Ireland election studies

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