Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Tory no confidence vote solved nothing - just a spectator sport for the DUP

Boris Johnston with Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds
Boris Johnston with Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

So on we go, with a Prime Minister with the backing of 63% of her party. Weaker than John Major, the last Conservative PM to undergo a vote of confidence. He carried on and took his party out of power for a generation.

Theresa May heads for Brussels today in a desperate plea to add an addendum, appendix or protocol to the EU withdrawal agreement she negotiated and told parliament and the people it was the only deal.

She won yesterday's contest partly via a selling point that she would not lead her party into the next election. With that chronic lack of self-confidence - justified by her wooden performances throughout the 2017 election - who would back her to prise significantly more from 27 EU member states?

Yesterday's vote that solved nothing was a spectator sport for the DUP. Back Theresa May? Okay - but you've lost your majority. Don't back her? Fine. We will reinvigorate our confidence and supply deal under the next leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Under the Conservative Party leadership election rules, that next leader would surely have been a true Brexiteer. Ultimately it is the Conservative members who choose between the final two candidates. Two-thirds of those members are pro-Brexit and one study suggested half support a hard Brexit.

Incredibly, May told the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers that she would win back the DUP. Except she hadn't spoken to them. Unless the PM can get a new EU deal, this will not happen.

From the moment May signed the withdrawal agreement, the DUP prepared to pull the plug. They viewed her position as temporary, unlike their perception of the backstop which she agreed.

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Having inserted their own backstop this time last year, which made distinctive NI-EU alignment subject to Assembly and Executive approval, the DUP lost faith in May the moment this was removed.

The PM, having mislaid her majority last year, has done the same with the one she cobbled together. While the government's non-Brexit legislation is far from extensive anyway, the lack of capacity to pass domestic legislation will further erode her authority.

Under the rules, there cannot now be a Conservative Party leadership challenge for another year. Tenacious Theresa will press on and gamble that growing fear of exit without a deal will concentrate parliamentary minds sufficiently to achieve a dramatic U-turn in January.

She has a point in arguing that it is her deal or no deal. Parliamentary amendments ruling out 'no deal' are not worth the paper on which they are tabled if no other deal is available. We would leave the EU on March 29 without one.

'Norway Plus' is ill-defined and not available in the limited time available. A second referendum remains a strong possibility, despite the denials. It is increasingly being sold across the parties as an 'Are you sure?' democratic option.

The problem is that the public are far from sure. Another close result would be likely, with further aggravation resulting.

Meanwhile, thwarted ambition will continue to corrode. Boris Johnson had already launched his Conservative leadership campaign. It just happened to be at the DUP conference.

"My fellow unionists", "junk the backstop" and "let's withhold half of the £39bn transitional payment to the EU" were pleas - not even thinly veiled - to both parties to back a new Boris/Nigel (Dodds) axis at Westminster.

A 'No Vacancy' sign may have gone up. The PM might - but only might - have a brief breathing space. Perhaps time for a Christmas truce with the DUP. But it will soon be Boxing Day.

  • Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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