So a Brexit deal has been signed and sealed – but is not yet quite delivered.
Although there appears to have been relatively little Cabinet mutiny over the deal (at least compared to the multiple resignations following the Chequers conference) and it has now been accepted across the board by EU leaders, Prime Minster Theresa May still faces the tricky problem of getting it passed through Parliament. This is particularly difficult given the slim majority that the Conservatives hold in Westminster following the 2017 snap election – and the confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP that they have had to maintain. Keeping the DUP onside is therefore integral to moving Brexit forward.
Yet this weekend’s DUP party conference in Belfast suggested that the DUP are quite some way from being able to support the current Brexit deal. The main problem for the party remains the issue of the Irish backstop. Such a policy is required by the EU to ensure that, should a suitable arrangement not be found by the end of the transition period to deal with the Irish border, this ‘last resort’ policy will ensure that trade and services are not disrupted across the island of Ireland. Given that this would potentially mean that Northern Ireland remained in line with EU regulations, whilst the rest of the UK would not, it has been a clear red line in Brexit negotiations that the DUP have long argued against.
In her speech to the party conference, DUP leader Arlene Foster declared that “we must leave as one nation”, saying that her party has “publicly and privately indicated that we could not support proposals that would open the possibility of divergence in either customs or regulatory measures between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Guest speaker Boris Johnson echoed this sentiment in a speech that he also made to the conference, declaring in a somewhat more direct fashion that “we are on the verge of making a historic mistake …. Unless we junk this backstop we are going to find that Brussels has got us exactly where it wants us.”
Chancellor Phillip Hammond also spoke at the conference’s private dinner, on what were presumably more conciliatory lines than Johnson, suggesting that the Conservatives remain aware of the necessity to maintain close dialogue and keep the DUP onside. Yet this does not appear to be happening. In an interview with Andrew Marr the day following the conference, Foster said she was “disappointed” in the Prime Minister and explicitly ruled out the 10 DUP MPs supporting the current agreement as it passes through Parliament.
May’s Northern Irish shaped headache therefore remains as she now attempts to get Parliament’s seal of approval for this Brexit deal. In the wake of the conference, Deputy Leader of the DUP Nigel Dodds wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that the agreement “is not a deal at any price.” DUP MPs remain critical to her ability to deliver this deal from the status of political agreement to settled upon reality. The message from the party’s echelons is that their support is still some way off.