- The Democratic Unionist Party which props up Theresa May is threatening to pull the plug on their confidence and supply deal with the Conservatives.
- The Northern Irish party is furious with reported plans for Northern Ireland to effectively stay in the customs union and single market during the backstop period.
- This would mean new checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of UK after Brexit – a clear breach of the DUP’s red line of new divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
- The DUP has threatened to vote against the budget, which in times gone by would bring down a prime minister.
LONDON – Theresa May’s fragile government is edging closer towards collapse after the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up the Conservatives, threatened to withdraw their support for the prime minister over her controversial Brexit plans.
The party’s Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, wrote on Thursday morning that the UK government is treating the pro-union DUP like a “soft touch who can be pushed around” over the thorny issue of the Irish border.
Wilson added: “The road which the leaks and briefings is outlining is the road to parliamentary defeat for any deal the prime minister brings forward. She will not have DUP support, regardless of whether the government tries to bribe, bully or browbeat us into accepting it.”
In the first sign of a crack in the government, the DUP abstained on a Labour amendment to the Agriculture Bill on Wednesday.
Now the Northern Irish party, which has nine MPs in the House of Commons, reportedly intends to vote against the UK government’s upcoming autumn budget if it doesn’t change course on the question of the Irish backstop.
Budget votes have historically been regarded as confidence votes in the prime minister. Although it wouldn’t automatically trigger her downfall under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, losing a budget vote would be a massive humiliation for May and lead to immediate calls for her to resign.
What’s the problem?
The DUP is furious over the reported details of the backstop agreement being thrashed out by UK and EU negotiators in Brussels.
The backstop is the insurance policy for making sure the frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is maintained after Brexit. It will come into effect at the end of the proposed transition period, in January 2021, unless a new trading arrangement which protects the open Irish border is in place.
Under plans currently being negotiated, the UK will effectively remain in a customs union with the EU during the backstop period, while Northern Ireland alone will remain fully aligned with the European single market.
This plan is controversial as would it mean new checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK which breach the DUP’s redline of no divergence whatsoever between the two.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Wednesday that although some checks can take place away from the border, those on live animals and animal-derived products would have to take place at the border. Not only that, but these checks would increase tenfold on what happens currently.
“There will be administrative procedures for goods travelling from the UK to Northern Ireland which do not exist today. I understand this is politically sensitive, but Brexit is not our [the EU’s] choice,” Barnier said yesterday.
There is also the issue of trade. If the Northern Ireland effectively stays in the customs union and single market for a period of time after Brexit, it will be unable to participate in any new trade deals signed by the UK government.
DUP leader Foster was furious after meeting with EU figures on Wednesday. In a statement, she said: “We will not burden future generations with a deal which diminishes Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom.”
So what next?
The DUP’s threat to vote against the budget is a sign that the confidence and supply deal agreed between them and the Conservatives following last year’s general election could be about to collapse.
On Wednesday night, DUP MPs abstained on a piece of agricultural legislation on which they had been expected to back the government, in a message to Prime Minister May that they are not bluffing.
If the DUP does vote down the budget – which will be revealed by Chancellor Philip Hammond later this month – the chances of another early general election will crank up a few notches, as May’s leadership would be in peril.
Government sources pushed back on Wednesday, telling journalists that this would be a breach of the confidence and supply deal, and that the DUP would have to give back the £1 billion it received as part of that arrangement.
And what about Brexit?
It’s looking increasingly likely that if May is going to get a Brexit deal through Parliament, she will have to do so without the support of 9 DUP MPs. That would make an already difficult task even tougher.
The DUP was last night backed by leading Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Steve Baker. Former Brexit minister Baker tweeted “no one should underestimate their [DUP’s resolve] while Johnson said the reported backstop plan would make the UK an “EU colony.” The prime minister is becoming increasingly isolated.
And to make the prime minister’s headache even more acute, around 30 Conservative party’s pro-EU MPs are reportedly planning to form an official group counterbalance the Jacob Rees Mog-led ERG pro-Brexit group.
In summary, the many parliamentary factions which have for months threatened to derail both May’s Brexit plan and her leadership have erupted into life – and MPs have only been back from recess for two days.
Figures in London and Brussels are increasingly confident that negotiators will be able to reach a final Brexit deal. Whether this deal will be accepted by a majority of MPs in Westminster is a different question altogether.
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