Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: First blood to DUP, but it's up against ruthless Boris Johnson and odds remain in his favour

Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

So, it was a case of Get Boris Done not Get Brexit Done at the weekend. The passing of the Letwin amendment in the Commons bought a little time for the DUP and the visceral satisfaction of some revenge on the Prime Minister for his duplicity.

Boris Johnson was reduced to a trio of "I want to stay married", "I want a divorce", "Let's talk about this" communications to the EU which would have embarrassed a Saturday night drunk let alone the holder of the greatest office of state.

The DUP's Westminster leader Nigel Dodds issued a "we'll fight them in the chamber and in committees" message soon afterwards, determined to thwart Johnson's withdrawal deal.

Yet, in one sense the dangers may have increased for the DUP.

A no-deal Brexit has now been virtually ruled out. That option might have been terrible for businesses and upsetting for a large majority of the populace, but it would at least have meant Northern Ireland leaving the EU in identical fashion to the rest of the UK.

Now the choices appear binary: the Johnson deal, placing Northern Ireland at arm's-length from UK regulatory and customs rules, or remaining in the EU.

Given its previous support for Brexit, a position which never properly thought through the consequences, the DUP cannot openly switch to becoming a Remain party - but given what Johnson's form of Brexit would entail, that is the reality.

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If a second referendum was agreed - although the DUP remains opposed to such a consent mechanism - with the choice between a Boris Bespoke Brexit and remaining in the UK, the DUP would surely join the UUP, Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein in the biggest rainbow coalition Northern Ireland has ever seen in opposing withdrawal.

Dodds has always made clear that the DUP is unionist first, Brexiteer second - as Theresa May and Boris Johnson have both found to their considerable irritation.

Any DUP-ERG link was a temporary marriage of convenience, now dissolved.

Many might understandably revel in the DUP's discomfort, given it was the only sizeable party in Northern Ireland to support Brexit.

But even if the DUP had been pro-Remain and delivered every supporter for that cause, there would still have been a UK majority for leaving the EU - and in terms of its delivery some form of special status for Northern Ireland has always been likely regardless of whether or not the DUP has acted strategically.

Where the DUP has struggled is in terms of articulating any coherent vision of its optimal Brexit - and how it would manage the border.

Naturally, the DUP now claims it has opportunities to amend the Prime Minister's withdrawal deal.

But a majority for the Letwin delaying amendment is not the same as a majority against the deal.

Time remains short for amendments and the Government - and certainly the EU - will surely not permit changes to arrangements.

Ultimately, the deal tells us what we have always known. That if there is to be a soft north-south border on the island of Ireland there will be a meaningful east-west border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The DUP might pursue changes to the consent mechanisms within the Government's proposals and make unionist consent - aka veto - the opt-in mechanism.

But that would only be acceptable to the DUP's non-unionist opponents if the party gives ground and permits considerable regulatory alignment.

And DUP refusal to accept customs alignment would mean we are back to square one.

Moreover, the DUP's concessions on EU regulatory alignment were predicated upon a functioning Assembly returning to manage (parallel) consent. There's optimism and there's optimism...

What the DUP now needs is to keep things in play beyond this weekend's tricky party conference.

Incredibly, there is no session dedicated to Brexit in the conference draft agenda.

Last Saturday the party managed to bite back, wounding a Prime Minister who thought he could act like a charlatan and treat his erstwhile allies with contempt and without sanction.

Last year's conference guest of honour will be the subject of vitriolic denunciation this weekend. There is more chance of Sam McBride's RHI Burned book being on sale at the event than Johnson showing up again.

But by the time Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster take to the podium this Saturday the game could be up.

The DUP needs to be still relevant at that point in shaping Brexit.

A three-month extension to EU membership will not assist if Johnson can get his deal through.

The DUP is up against a Prime Minister revelling in ruthlessness - and the odds remain in his favour.

  • Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest To Power (Oxford University Press)

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