Theresa May has been told that the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, is now “ready” to trigger a no-deal Brexit and regards this as the “likeliest outcome” following a “hostile and difficult” exchange with the EU’s chief negotiator, an explosive set of leaked government emails reveal..
These are high risk tactics by the DUP, eager as ever to represent chronic insecurity as high principle. On the face of it, Mrs Foster’s tough tactics appear to be triumphantly vindicated. But this could be their kamikaze moment. While they may think they are in good Brexit company for the moment, most Tories even if opposed to Chequers would surely turn on them as a fall guy, if No Deal was the outcome and Mrs May was forced to resign the Conservative leadership.
Arlene herself is “going nowhere” she tells critics at a DUP party meeting, in itself hardly a sign of an entirely confident leader. Complainng about her attendance at a GAA match on a Sunday at such a time exposes the straight jacket binding her and may have pushed her into greater militancy over Brexit terms.
But better to abstain Arlene, if you can’t support and leave it to the big guys to deal with May. Looking beyond the immediate crisis , can anyone imagine the Conservatives pulling out the stops to provide incentives to support the Union in the event of a future border poll, the timing of which the DUP would have no control? The best hope now is for the deal May negotiates, to squeak through the Commons with the help of enough Labour MPs and for the terms amount to a time limit for the UK to remain associated with the customs union. It’s too late now to change tack before Wednesday’s EU summit.
According to a private email exchange between senior UK officials, seen by the Observer, Foster had expressed deep disappointment about her meeting with Barnier, and outlined her wider thinking, during a dinner with the leader of the Conservative MEPs, Ashley Fox. “She described Barnier as being difficult and hostile in her meeting today…” the leaked email from an adviser involved in the Brexit talks says. “AF [Arlene Foster] said the DUP were ready for a no-deal scenario, which she now believed was the likeliest one.”
The official added in his email, circulated at the highest levels, that it was not clear whether Foster was seeking to threaten the government or simply inform it of her plans.
Last week, the DUP, whose 10 MPs prop up May’s government, made it clear they would be prepared to vote down the budget this month, if the government pressed ahead with a Brexit deal that tied Northern Ireland closer to the EU than the rest of the UK. Losing a budget vote would plunge the government into crisis.
News of the emails comes amid new infighting in May’s cabinet over Brexit. The prime minister will make a final appeal for ministerial unity on Tuesday at a cabinet meeting, amid rumours that more senior ministers could soon follow Boris Johnson and David Davis out of the government.
The Sunday Times is predicting cabinet mutiny called by former Brexit secretary David Davis and imminent government collapse
May now faces an onslaught from at least nine ministers wanting her to change tack when the cabinet meets on Tuesday — with credible threats to resign from at least four. They are demanding a date be set to leave the customs union or a break clause, to be triggered in London, not Brussels.
Both the Scottish secretary, David Mundell, and Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, have also made clear they would resign if Northern Ireland faces new controls that separate it from the rest of the UK — because that would fuel the case for Scottish independence. A senior Tory said: “Any differentiated deal that puts a hard border down the Irish Sea they consider a resigning matter.”
Hmm.. I wonder if that last bit is entirely true. It doesn’t sound quite right.
In another blow for May, MPs who voted “remain” now plan to vote against her deal. Sir Hugo Swire said: “I won’t vote for anything that weakens Northern Ireland within the Union. Staying in a customs union would clearly have to have an end date on it.”
The government’s strategy has three fundamental flaws, all of which are surfacing as we approach the endgame. These flaws arise from Downing Street’s unwise decision in December to accept the EU’s language on dealing with the Northern Ireland border. Because of this, it has been led into bad policies on a customs union, the treatment of Northern Ireland itself and the whole future economic partnership.
The government is proposing that the entire United Kingdom should stay within the European customs union until the Northern Ireland border issue is resolved. This has been politicised by both the government of Ireland and the European Commission. As a result, it will be incredibly difficult to come to an agreement that will resolve the matter in a way acceptable to all parties.
The policy is also completely open-ended. It is unlikely that the EU would agree to end this policy before we had an operational customs arrangement with it. As it stands, the government’s proposed customs policy is dismissed by the European Commission as impractical, and even on the government’s own estimates it will not be in place before 2025. So it seems entirely probable that this policy would lead to us being trapped in the customs union for the foreseeable future.
The next flaw is the proposed treatment of Northern Ireland. What is being suggested is, in effect, keeping Northern Ireland inside the single market. This would mean having a border in the Irish Sea for both goods and people. Michel Barnier told the Northern Ireland delegation that would involve checking all animal traffic heading into Northern Ireland — 10 times the current level of checks. It would mean we would be forced to have more checks on livestock moving within the UK than New Zealand has to have exporting to the EU.
This is completely unacceptable to the DUP and to most people who believe in preserving the United Kingdom, including most of the Conservative Party. If we allowed it, Northern Ireland would be denied participation in the free-trade deals that the rest of the UK would be seeking after Brexit.
Even worse hit would be Ireland, whose entire agricultural sector would face enormous risks. Belgium and the Netherlands will each face a hit worth 3%-4% of their GDP. Their political leaders are beginning to realise that the immediate consequence of failure for them would be significantly worse than for us, and they would not have the long-term opportunities that we would. Accordingly, now is the time to toughen our stance, not weaken it.
This is one of the most fundamental decisions that government has taken in modern times. It is time for cabinet members to exert their collective authority. This week the authority of our constitution is on the line.
The EU has already offered us a Canada-style, zero-tariffs trade agreement, and Donald Tusk, president of the council, reinforced that offer last week. A good deal is clearly within our grasp. We must reset our negotiating strategy immediately and deliver a Brexit that meets the demands of the referendum and the interests of the British people.
In the Newsletter Ben Lowry unwittingly puts his finger on the flaw in the DUP’s reasoning:
Even if Brexiteers take charge and a Canada style free trade deal comes close to clearing parliament and the EU says no to Northern Ireland being part of it (as it does), the Brexiteers will have to be willing to stand up to that.
Will they, or will they cut us adrift for a deal?
Unionism is in a very bad way: on legacy (IRA triumphant), on competence issues (RHI), on Brexit, on friendship (a young generation and chunk of the UK that dislikes it).
Dire events might force some sort of unionist unity on it quite soon.
That’d show ’em Ben! But he’s right on his main point. A free trade Canada plus plus, plus deal – already refused by the EU – wouldn’t dispose of the border problem either. Its supporters simply play the problem down. For the DUP the better immediate option is to calm down and wait to see what regulatory checks are envisaged in the full context of the withdrawal agreement. And then to remember that the Union depends on the people’s consent, not trade regulations. This hysterical brinkmanship will only end in tears for Northern Ireland, whoever is in charge in Downing St .
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