The Daily Telegraph claims Arlene Foster has given “a major boost” to Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions in an interview with the paper on the eve of Boris’ appearance at a Conservative fringe meeting. In comments which fail to back the Chequers plan, she has also kept her distance from Theresa May personally.
In a major boost for Mr Johnson’s leadership ambitions, Mrs Foster endorsed the “belief” and “spirit” contained in his blueprint for Brexit.
One her biggest disappointments is the failure of ministers to “talk about the aspirations for the nation”.
Asked if she agreed with Mr Johnson, she said: “In terms of the need for aspiration I think it is important that people start to talk.
I do get very frustrated about some people in the Conservative Party. Look, it’s happening, so therefore let’s make it as good as we possibly can, instead of all of this talk about a people’s vote ( a.k.a. a second referendum).
“I think people want that hope, they want to be positive. I think the reason why so many people are turned off by Brexit is because they are being fed a diet of negativity – whether it’s infighting, Brussels, being disrespected by people over there.
“We haven’t been able to talk about the aspirations for the nation, we’ve spent so much time arguing about what’s happened, is it going to be a disaster for Ireland in inverted commas…instead of actually focusing on what we can achieve in the UK with the Brexit negotiations. What we want to see, and I’m not making a comparison between Boris and the Prime Minister, is belief. We want to see that spirit.”
Mrs Foster said when asked if she could work with Boris Johnson in Number 10: “Our confidence arrangement is with the Conservative Party. It was signed by the two chief whips. It is a party-to-party agreement. Whoever leads the Conservative Party we will work with as it’s in the national interest. The reason we signed the agreement was to ensure Brexit.”
A majority of Cabinet ministers now want Mrs May to adopt a Canada-style deal as a plan B in case Chequers fails, and Mrs Foster said: “For me as a former lawyer I need to see the text, I’d have to see what that means for Northern Ireland in reality…all I can say to you is that whatever is proposed, we will look at our red line, we will judge it against that red line, and we will make a decision.”
She said it was wrong to suggest that the Belfast Agreement could not be altered to accommodate a final Brexit deal, an argument that has also been made by Mr Johnson. It has been deeply frustrating to hear people who voted remain and in Europe talk about Northern Ireland as though we can’t touch the Belfast Agreement. Things evolve, even in the EU context. There has been a lot of misinterpretation, holding it up as a sacrosanct piece of legislation.”
There’s quite a lot to unpick here.
Mrs May is resisting a Canada-style free trade deal because it means as things stand, the dreaded backstop would kick in. The prime minister has been criticised for being too much in the DUP’s pocket. Now Arlene is signalling that the prime minister cannot rely on the DUP’s support in the crucial votes on the negotiations later this month. Will not Mrs May read this as blatant ingratitude for her steadfast support for the “precious precious Union?”
If the DUP are tacking towards Canada, does Arlene agree with the Brexiteers’ insistence that the problems of the border are exaggerated? If they are exaggerated, aren’t her fears of checks in GB exaggerated too?
What sort of changes to the Belfast Agreement does she envisage after Brexit?
And what is the DUP’S own list of the advantages of Brexit for Northern Ireland? They’ve yet to specify.
The problem with the DUP position is that it’s passive-aggressive, waiting to see if their red lines are breached but making little or no contribution to a debate they are content to be conducted by others – as in so many other burning topics.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London