Has Arlene Foster Finally Overplayed Her Hand?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There will be time to study the details of the new Brexit deal and draw conclusions about what side gave in the most, and how it will work in practice. The immediate question is whether the U.K. and European Union can make the agreement stick, given that Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party is not on board.

The DUP’s refusal to back the former prime minister Theresa May’s deal ensured it was rejected three times in U.K. parliamentary votes and brought about her downfall. Her successor Boris Johnson seems to be betting that either the hard heads of the DUP will change their minds, or that their support is no longer essential. The first is unlikely, but the second is just about plausible.

The past 24 hours have been a wild ride. When reports emerged on Wednesday that a deal had been agreed, the DUP leader Arlene Foster was quick to tweet: “‘EU’ sources are talking nonsense!” It was a deflating moment for anyone hoping that this was the moment of breakthrough.

And yet by Thursday Johnson took the bold step of ignoring Foster and announcing a deal anyhow with EU leaders; as is their wont, the DUP gave it an immediate thumbs down. Getting the famously unyielding unionists to move now would be like trying to rearrange the basalt columns of Giant’s Causeway. Back in 2017, a DUP official said: “This is a battle of who blinks first, and we’ve cut off our eyelids.”

This may all seem to be taking tail-wags-dog to a whole other level. The DUP represents a little over one-third of Northern Irish voters. But after the Conservatives lost their electoral majority in 2017, the 10 DUP lawmakers propped up May’s government and have been key to getting any Brexit deal through the House of Commons.

They’ve been viewed as critical to Johnson winning approval for his deal because a group of hardline Tory MPs who have a deep, ideological commitment to both leaving the European Union and preserving the U.K. one, have been loath to vote for any deal the DUP doesn’t approve. Yet this time the DUP may have overplayed its hand.

The Brexit ultras in Johnson’s party, known as the Spartans, may be unionists, but their interests and those of the DUP have never been fully aligned. The Spartans want the hardest Brexit possible, and that’s their ultimate priority, rather than the exact form of customs arrangements between the mainland U.K. and Northern Ireland and how exactly consent is given for that by the DUP.

Johnson’s deal doesn’t look like it crosses any of the Spartans’ red lines. They haven’t said so far whether they’ll back him, but some of the noises ahead of the deal’s announcement were positive. They realize if a deal doesn’t pass now, there’s a chance Brexit may never happen. Secure their support, and it’s possible Johnson could win enough votes to pass his deal, as Bloomberg’s Rob Hutton outlined on Wednesday.

Much depends too on whether Brexit-supporting Labour MPs back a deal.

It may seem hard to imagine what the DUP gains from its opposition, other than burnishing its own Braveheart reputation by holding out. But the DUP plays a long game. They’re asking themselves whether the new arrangements, which include customs and regulatory checks on the Irish Sea border, will over time make it easier for Northern Ireland to drift toward unification with Ireland. They’re thinking about how unionist voters will regard their support for a deal that doesn’t give them an effective veto over the new arrangements, as Johnson’s original proposal did. 

It’s pretty clear too that the DUP themselves have been divided over how to handle Johnson’s deal. 

Getting the EU, Ireland and the DUP to agree was the hat-trick Johnson wanted but for now two out of three will have to suffice. If his deal fails a probable vote in Parliament on Saturday, he’ll have to request a Brexit extension from the EU. This would give the DUP more time to extract concessions.

Johnson, meanwhile, will get points for reaching a deal everyone thought was impossible. Even if he loses the parliamentary vote, he’ll be able to tell Britain’s voters he did absolutely everything to deliver Brexit on Oct. 31 or close to it. If he has to go into an election on those terms, he’ll fancy his chances.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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