Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: DUP right to be wary of Boris Johnson becoming PM

Boris Johnson, centre, sits with DUP leader Arlene Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds at the party’s annual conference in Belfast (Michael Cooper/PA)
Boris Johnson, centre, sits with DUP leader Arlene Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds at the party’s annual conference in Belfast (Michael Cooper/PA)
Boris Johnson and Arlene Foster
Leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds pictured with Boris Johnston at the DUP annual conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Not so long ago the chemistry between Boris Johnson and the DUP was powerful. Arlene Foster planted a smacker on his cheek when he attended her party conference last November.

BoJo was the star turn. In the wake of the heavy criticism the party had faced at the RHI Inquiry, he was just what the spin doctors ordered.

Boris bedazzled his audience with a speech which wandered from bendy buses to Star Wars, Van Morrison to Venezuela, with the Titanic thrown in for good measure.

There was whooping, cheering and foot stomping. Indeed, so excitable were the DUP faithful that at one stage he had to tell them to calm down.

Yet, seven months later, the party is distinctly nervous about the prospect of their guest speaker securing the keys to Number 10. And they have every reason to be.

Even in those heady conference days the DUP's top brass knew the score. In the game of Marry, Date or Dump, Boris would be regarded by his host as somebody suitable for a good time, not a partner with whom to make a lifelong commitment.

Johnson is instinctively a unionist, as opposed to other more English nationalist Brexiteers. He genuinely loves coming to Northern Ireland.

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In one high-profile visit in 2016 as Lord Mayor of London he announced a £60m deal to buy 200 new 'Boris buses' from Ballymena's Wrightbus.

The RHI Inquiry exposed the jockeying for an invite to the event within DUP ranks.

But the party knows that Johnson has always been driven first and foremost by achieving and keeping power.

Mr Johnson watched on as Ms Foster gave her own address to conference (Michael Cooper/PA)
Mr Johnson watched on as Ms Foster gave her own address to conference (Michael Cooper/PA)

It is questionable just how much he actually believes in. But there is no doubting that, whatever principles he retains - along with unionists - will be thrown under the bus if needs be.

He blasted Theresa May's withdrawal agreement and its consequences for Northern Ireland at the DUP conference, demanding that "we junk this backstop". With barely a blush he later sauntered into the Commons 'Aye' lobby and voted for the deal.

The clear poll-topper in the first round of voting for the Tory leadership, Johnson is the runaway 1/5 bookies favourite to succeed Theresa May.

If he wins, one of the first people he will ring will be Mrs Foster, whose 10 MPs are crucial to the Tories remaining in power.

There is of course a new 'confidence and supply' agreement to hammer out as well, or there won't be a Queen's Speech in the autumn.

The presence of former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson as a key figure in Johnson's leadership campaign will soothe DUP nerves.

A friend to the party before its kingmaker Commons' role, he will be as instrumental in negotiating the next 'confidence and supply' agreement as he was with the last. The DUP may not trust BoJo, but they do trust Williamson implicitly.

Johnson will head to Brussels to attempt to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement.

Brexit optimists believe the fact the EU realises he is up for a no-deal will give him greater leverage.

But if this proves to be a pipe-dream, then the big danger for the DUP is that Johnson returns to the original plan of a Northern Ireland-only backstop with a border in the Irish Sea.

While keeping the DUP happy is important, ultimately securing seats in England at the next election will be his overwhelming priority. Northern Ireland's EU status won't be a big vote winner or loser there.

Johnson has stressed that he doesn't agree "with absolutely every jot and tittle of DUP policy". He has long been a supporter of same-sex marriage.

But it's his potential decisions as Prime Minister on the backstop, not LGBTQ rights, that will make the DUP jittery.

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