May Gets Glimpse of Grim Future as DUP Flirts With Johnson

(Bloomberg) -- As Theresa May prepares to seal her Brexit deal in Brussels, the Democratic Unionist Party is upping the stakes in its efforts to derail her from Belfast.

This week, May’s erstwhile allies refused to back her finance bill, a taste of the party’s likely tactics as she forges an accord it says imperils Northern Ireland’s position within the U.K. On Saturday it will host arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson at its annual conference, sending a message to May, who relies on the DUP’s 10 lawmakers to stay in power.

May Gets Glimpse of Grim Future as DUP Flirts With Johnson

“Johnson will add to the sense of aggravation,” said University of Liverpool professor Jonathan Tonge, who co-authored a 2014 book on the DUP. “There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the duplicity of the prime minister.”

The DUP is angry because May agreed to allow the EU closer ties with Northern Ireland than the rest of the U.K. after Brexit. Party leader Arlene Foster raised the stakes on Saturday, saying that the Brexit deal posed a greater threat than the risk of an election that could bring the opposition Labour Party to power.

Divided Kingdom

To help avoid the return of checkpoints on the Irish border, May’s deal suggests the entire U.K. will remain in a customs union with the EU until a better solution is found. But Northern Ireland will also keep many of the EU’s rules -- and that means added checks on goods arriving from mainland Britain. Both the U.K. and EU say they want to avoid the backstop ever being triggered, but so far that hasn’t been enough to reassure the DUP.

Deputy leader Nigel Dodds was clear in his speech to the conference on Saturday. "Prime Minister -- bin the backstop," he said.

May Gets Glimpse of Grim Future as DUP Flirts With Johnson

In Dublin, some officials hope the party might abstain in the upcoming parliamentary vote on May’s deal, possibly if the U.K. agrees to stick to all the EU’s rules to avoid internal barriers. Still, there’s little sign of the DUP wavering right now.

“For many unionists, no Brexit at all would be an easier sell at this point than the deal that is on offer,” said Richard Bullick, a former adviser to Foster.

After the Vote

And if May survives the Brexit vote, the DUP is likely to continue to frustrate her domestic agenda. While the U.K.’s fixed-term parliamentary system makes it tricky for the DUP to topple the prime minister on its own, deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, this week pointed out the government will still need its help to pass legislation.

“In terms of the confidence-and-supply deal, the DUP can certainly pull the plug on the government but most of the non-Brexit legislative agenda is anodyne -- the thinnest program I’ve ever seen -- so that wouldn’t be as dramatic as might be presumed,” said Tonge.

More likely though, May will lose the vote, ending her reign, he said.

“That leaves an election, second referendum or no deal as the only options,” he said, “No deal would be disastrous for Northern Ireland, but the DUP wouldn’t be unduly troubled by any of those options, unless -- as is just possible -- a no-deal exit plays badly with its own pro-Brexit support base. ”

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