28 March 2019

The announcement by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that it will not support the Withdrawal Agreement comes as a major blow to the Government’s chances of getting the Brexit deal through Parliament. In a statement released on Wednesday night, the DUP said that while the party had been having “good discussions” with the Government and “progress on domestic legislation has been made,” the “necessary changes we seek to the backstop have not been secured between the Government and the European Union.”

As always with the DUP, the text of the statement demands close inspection. The party did not completely rule out re-engaging with the Government but the nature of the statement – and the tone of the television interviews with party leader Arlene Foster – suggested this was a decisive and purposeful intervention. Several points are worth noting. First, the statement made mention of progress on “domestic legislation,” thought to be a reference to the “Stormont Lock” or the role which would be played by the Northern Ireland Assembly under the backstop. This is something which has been discussed by Open Europe previously, and a commitment to flesh out a role for Stormont was promised by the Prime Minister as far back as November 2018. While the EU has always said that this is purely a domestic UK commitment, the DUP sees it as a promise made by both sides under the December 2017 Joint Report. The Government should at least publish its proposals for the Stormont Lock – setting out the proposal as it would appear in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – and explore the possibility of having it enshrined in an international agreement with the EU. This might persuade the DUP that the commitments of December 2017 have been honoured.

Another point to note is that the DUP’s relationship with the Government has not been helped by uncertainty over the Conservative party leadership. The Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth recently reported that DUP MPs were unsettled by conversations with some of the would-be backbench leadership contenders, raising doubts about whether a future Prime Minister would feel bound by any all-UK commitments made by Theresa May. Where Conservative Brexiteers hope for a more vigorous approach to the next phase of the negotiations, the DUP is clearly worried that Theresa May’s commitment to close alignment with the EU under the backstop could be undermined by a potential successor.

What happens now? One possibility is that the continued stalemate in Parliament will lead to a General Election. This is not something that the DUP wants. The party is vulnerable to losing seats and could be squeezed out of its influential king-maker role in the House of Commons. The DUP has reason to be concerned about the possibility of a Government led by Jeremy Corbyn on the one hand, and a majority Conservative Government on the other. But the party might feel that the risk of an election is one worth taking. Unionists from Northern Ireland are aware that their position of influence in the Westminster Parliament is precarious. A future Conservative Government could opt for a Brexit outcome which sees further divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – but this remains a possibility under the terms of the present Withdrawal Agreement. For as long as that is the case, it is better from the point of view of the DUP’s home audience that it does not formally endorse the current Brexit deal. Unless the party can take ownership of the Agreement, there is no political advantage in supporting it.

Another possibility is that the DUP might pivot towards a softer Brexit. Until now, the party has taken the view that Brexit means leaving the single market and the customs union. When a recent report in The Times suggested that the party would be willing to accept a Norway-style model, it was rebutted immediately by the DUP leadership. But there is a difference between promoting an outcome and accepting it as a fait accompli. In her Sky News interview on Wednesday, Arlene Foster referred to the fact that there were “conversations going on around a range of deals,” noting also that “it has been made clear by Parliament that they are not in favour of a No Deal scenario.” In the indicative votes on Wednesday night, the party abstained on the options of EEA/EFTA and Common Market 2.0. Without reading too much between the lines, it is possible to interpret this as a signal that the DUP could accept one of the softer options – although even if Parliament voted for the option of Common Market 2.0 this would not obviate the need for the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement, as that outcome still needs to be negotiated with the EU.

Finally, the DUP leader has now acknowledged the differences between her party and the Conservative Brexiteers in Parliament, and this may mean that the party is prepared to distance itself from the European Research Group (ERG) in pursuit of a different outcome. As Foster put it, “Brexit is incredibly important for me as well, but it is not the most important issue. The most important issue for me, for the Democratic Unionist Party, for our ten MPs, is the preservation of our Union.” Her colleague, the MP Jim Shannon, made a similar point about the distinction between the DUP and the ERG in a BBC interview earlier this week.

What is clear is that the Government has not yet pulled out all the stops to persuade the DUP that the backstop does not represent a threat to the Union. Until it does so the party will not vote for the Withdrawal Agreement.