It looks worse and worse for Theresa May as a crucial week begins. The Times reports:
Theresa May was under fresh pressure last night as the DUP threatened to abandon her in a confidence vote if she failed to get her Brexit deal through parliament. Party sources said that they were considering the move, which would leave the prime minister without a Commons majority, over fears that her plan would create a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The warning came as Labour said that it would table a no-confidence motion in the government if MPs voted down her Brexit deal next week.
If the Times story is true, it means the DUP are playing high stakes poker by “considering” voting no confidence in the government if Mrs May badly loses as expected the meaningful vote on 11 December. Fuel will be added to the DUP’s fire by the alleged leak to the Daily Telegraph claiming that the chief negotiator Ollie Robbins...
warned in a letter to the Prime Minister that there is no legal “guarantee” that Britain will be able to break off from the backstop, potentially leaving the UK trapped in a Customs Union with the EU.
He argued that extending the transition period after Brexit would provide a more “cast iron escape route” than entering into the backstop, which under Mrs May’s deal will kick in if a solution to the Irish border issue cannot be found by December 2020.
He said: “We should not forget that the backstop world, even with a UK-EU customs union, is a bad outcome with regulatory controls needed somewhere between GB and NI, serious and visible frictions and process between GB and the EU, and no security co-operation provided for.”
If the chief negotiator is against the backstop, who else except Mrs May can be for it, I hear you cry. Robbins will be tackled on the letter at a Brexit select committee hearing today. Normally civil servants are eventually allowed to take refuge in the constitutional convention that their advice to ministers is confidential. But with the opposition rampant over the legal advice on the withdrawal agreement, Robbins will find that a hard line to sustain without making at least a tacit admission or denial .
Due to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act a vote of confidence can no longer be held on an issue like, say the terms for Brexit or directly for contempt of parliament. The motion must be on the survival of the government itself. To vote no confidence would set fourteen days for the government to strike a fresh deal to form a majority or hold a general election. In the DUP’s case this looks like pointing a gun at Theresa May’s head and forcing her to adopt Norway or another plan, or resign. Not the most sophisticated of tactics.
Why play such hard ball when a drastic loss of the meaningful vote would compel a major rethink anyway? Why not leave the heavy lifting to the other opposition parties and preserve a modicum of influence with the divided Tories? Better still, why not state their terms openly in advance of the meaningful vote so the government and their own voters can express opinions on it?
A vote of no confidence would put the DUP’s deal with the Conservatives out of its misery. The drastic loss of trust would rob them of all but tactical influence with the Conservatives in the future . Perhaps they’d do a deal with Jeremy Corbyn? The idea is not so far fetched if it depends only on Commons numbers. Corbyn the defender of partition. Have stranger things really happened?
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