Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Tory hardliner Gove is DUP's ideal choice for PM


The runners and riders... so far
The runners and riders... so far
Jon Tonge

Jon Tonge

Eight Conservative Party leadership candidates declared and lots more to come. But, if a Conservative Secretary of State struggled to understand the differences between unionists and nationalists, could many of the leadership contestants even place Belfast or Bangor on a map?

What are the implications of the outcome for the Conservative-DUP confidence-and-supply deal?

The DUP has always been careful to state that its support was for the Conservative government - on a conditional basis - and not for a particular Conservative leader.

Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds will remain tight-lipped on their preferred outcome to the biggest leadership contest in UK political history.

But they will certainly have their preferences.

Boris Johnson launched his leadership bid at the party conference some months ago - the DUP conference that is.

Urging his Prime Minister to junk the backstop played well to the assembled throng.

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This was sufficient to override DUP scepticism over Johnson's ambition and concerns among DUP traditionalists over the infelicities in Johnson's complicated personal life.

Johnson has publicly stated - giving himself little wriggle room - that the UK will leave with or without a deal by Halloween.

If he sticks to his DUP conference line, it will be the latter type of exit.

That will be fine with the DUP, who are not committed 'no-dealers', but loathe the backstop more than anything else.

Johnson starts favourite for the contest but given the abysmal record of favourites in this contest, that is not an asset.

In the last five decades, only Michael Howard started favourite and won the Conservative leadership - and it rather helped that he was unopposed.

Second favourite with some bookmakers is Michael Gove.

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

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.

Gove also lamented how the police in Northern Ireland had become "a political plaything".

It would not be a surprise to hear Gove offering opposition to the continuing prosecution of British Army veterans - even though the DUP has distanced itself slightly from the Conservative outrider on this issue, the MP Johnny Mercer, who is backing Boris Johnson.

Of the other candidates, Esther McVey has also been very dismissive of the backstop, arguing that the border can remain invisible given advances in technology, which is a similar argument to that advanced by the DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly in particular.

Steve Baker - if he decides to stand - is the hardliner's hardliner in terms of opposing all things EU.

Dominic Raab said that he hasn't read the Good Friday Agreement, so it will be interesting to find out whether he is in favour or opposed, once he has done us the courtesy.

Jeremy Hunt's approach to the DUP and Northern Ireland is unclear and the same lack of knowledge applies to the ever-genial Matt Hancock.

Rory Stewart is the candidate who was most committed to Theresa May's deal with the EU, accepting the backstop as the necessary means of managing the border issue while honouring the referendum result.

So of the candidates so far, Johnson and Gove - whilst hardly great buddies given how Gove ended Boris's bid last time - might appeal most to the DUP.

And the DUP does hold the aces, given that whoever wins needs the DUP, more than the DUP needs the winner.

Cue more cash for Northern Ireland.

But it's a complicated contest and much can happen.

DUP leadership 'contests' are less fraught.

Think back to Peter Robinson's announcement that the contest for his successor would comprise Arlene Foster - only.

Sometimes, it's just simpler that way.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

Belfast Telegraph


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