Nigel Dodds speaks out. But is the DUP’s uncompromising stance any more than cover for living with the backstop?

After the chaos of last week, leading media reflect sharply differing views on the prospects for a third meaningful vote on Tuesday. The Leave – supporting Telegraph newspapers have emerged as the unlikely cheerleaders for Mrs May’s battered deal.  If the deal passes, No 10 officials say the necessary legislation will have cleared the Commons by April 25, paving the way for a new Brexit Day in the final week of May or first week of June, according to the Sunday Times.

But if the deal fails, May will be forced to request a long extension of article 50 and hold EU elections, at a cost of £100m.

Mrs May writes in the Sunday Telegraph: “The idea of the British people going to the polls to elect MEPs three years after voting to leave the EU hardly bears thinking about. There could be no more potent symbol of parliament’s collective political failure.”

No doubt about it,  pressure is mounting on the Brexiteers to settle for Mrs  May’s deal in MV3 on Tuesday. The breach in the dyke opened as early as last Tuesday when their elder statesman David Davis stunned hardliners by voting with the prime minister.

Even with 75 MPs needed to switch for victory, the Telegraph calculates she can make it with the help of several Leave Labour MPs. It’s hard to know if No 10 is trying to whip up momentum or the figures are as robust as the paper suggests.

Of the 75 rebel Tories in the second Withdrawal Agreement vote, 52 went on to vote for the Malthouse Compromise, for a no-deal Brexit and against an Article 50 extension.

The 10 DUP MPs, as well as Labour backbencher Kate Hoey, have the same voting records on these key votes, taking the total of this bloc of Brexiteers to 63 MPs.

Most of these MPs are likely to be worried about the prospects of Brexit being delayed or cancelled altogether. Some hardliners are trying to extract a promise from Mrs May to quit as PM as the price of their support. Others like party former leader Michael Howard seeing the writing on the wall are giving up without a fight, their reason being that as the Commons voted to take No Deal off the table, Britain was now at the mercy of an EU which could now dictate worse terms.

The trouble is that such a move would likely take her voting tally to around 305 – still short of a majority in Westminster, where 317 MPs would be needed.

In the absence of being able to convert all of the rebels in her own party and the DUP, Mrs May is going to need 15 other Leave supporters from the Labour benches to get her deal passed. That would raise her tally to 320 MPs – higher than the majority of 317 that is likely needed.

Robert Peston of ITV News produces a more pessimistic reading than the Telegraph’s. He’s not  even sure there will  be an MV3.

I am told by her close colleagues, that two conditions must be met for her to go ahead with the vote, probably on Tuesday.

First, Northern Ireland’s DUP must say on Monday that they have, at the last, changed their minds and have decided to vote with her.

To be clear, there is no logical reason why they should do this, given that there will be no last-minute alteration to what they hate most about her deal – namely the backstop which is designed to keep open the border on the island of Ireland and is enshrined in the Withdrawal Agreement.

So, the theoretical risk that the backstop will be forever, and will drive a regulatory wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – which the DUP sees as toxic – is still implicit in May’s plan.

But DUP MPs and politicians increasingly seem embarrassed by their central role in derailing Brexit, and ministers are therefore hopeful that just possibly they will cease their opposition if – for example – they are guaranteed a central role in negotiating whatever arrangements that ultimately make the backstop redundant or short-lived.

And when I ask government members what else could mollify Northern Ireland’s main unionist party, they text me emojis of dollars bills.

That said, the DUP tells me they won’t be bribed, or at least not this time. And that they will only vote for the deal if persuaded there is no risk that the Brexit settlement would fracture the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Truthfully, I don’t see how they will be able to rescue the PM, because – as I said from the outset – nothing fundamental has or will change to underwrite such a volte-face.

But since we live in such strange times, I am loath to bet my life savings on 10 MPs of any persuasion sticking to what they claim to be inviolable principles.

So like most people, Peston hedges. But money comes into it as Dodds is said to be resurrecting the demand to cancel air passenger duty for NI airports.  And the Sunday Times quotes an unnamed source claiming that the renewal of the DUP’s support for the government will require  “another billion” –  but only after a withdrawal agreement is done “to prevent a bribe looking like a bribe”.

Arlene Foster and  Dodds have laid down the DUP terms in a two part plan.

 The first part is a guarantee the EU will not treat Northern Ireland and Britain differently in terms of the customs union and single market after Brexit. The second is that DUP MPs will be “deeply involved” in the UK Government negotiating team over the future trade deal with the EU.

Presumably this would be included in a stiffened political  declaration.

In an interview with Parliament’s own House Magazine,  Dodds bluntness about  government’s failure of approach to Northern Ireland  will ring many bells. He makes no bones about rating his own negotiation and governing skills higher than the government’s.

The Brexit process has exposed ignorance of Northern Irish politics on the mainland  (sic). Dodds says it is “galling” to see MPs refer to the province to advance their own version of Brexit, but not attend crucial debates in the Commons on the Northern Ireland budget. “It is very frustrating, but it never ceases to surprise me the people who pop up and talk about Northern Ireland as if they are so concerned about the people of Northern Ireland but show no interest in anything else about Northern Ireland except Brexit.”

He comes close to demanding a replacement  for secretary of state Karen Bradley

“Karen obviously has had her problems and difficulties, there’s no doubt about that. The NIO [Northern Ireland Office] has been, in our view, a dysfunctional department for quite a time. It needs strong leadership..

“I think that Karen has, perhaps, not been as out there in terms of getting across the people in Northern Ireland, talking to them, meeting with groups and all the rest of it, as some of her predecessors. I know that, however, Brexit and the votes here has meant that maybe she hasn’t had as much time. But her basic policy approach has been flawed in the sense that she has decided that Northern Ireland could just stand still, leave it to the civil servants. For that, that’s a glaring failure on her part. She has not taken a grip and shown the leadership that she should have.”

Should there be a change of leadership in the Northern Ireland Office? “I think the Government needs to have a change of leadership in a number of departments, yes, across the board,”

Dodds concedes that Brexit has been a “major contributory factor” to the continuing deadlock at Stormont. But he is “very, very confident” that devolution can be restored in the “short to medium term”. “I don’t think the concept of power-sharing is dead because everybody in Northern Ireland is brought into it, they accept it, that’s the default position. People want devolved government. They don’t want to go back to violence. So, all the ingredients are there.”

What went so badly wrong last week?

Tony Connelly of RTE reckons Attorney General Cox blew the deal that the prime minister squeaked through cabinet.  Connelly’s gripping account of the latest bungled negotiations showed that Cox the theatrical old school lawyer was poles apart from No 10 and chasms from the EU from beginning to end. But No 10 must take the blame for the elementary failure to square his account with hers.

Unsurprisingly then, the Star Chamber of Brexiteer  legal eagles including the  DUP’s Nigel Dodds  dismissed  Cox’s  latest argument  that the backstop creates “ a fundamental change of circumstances … which was not foreseen by the parties”,  under Article 62 of  the Vienna Convention on the law on Treaties. Critics have pointed out that the bar of “ not foreseen”  was set so high that it did not extend to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It could hardly  apply therefore  to the well worked topic of  Northern Ireland’s status.

The  DUP must be desperate for a deal particularly after reading the chaos  inflicted on everybody by the contortions to keep the border open.

What in concrete terms are they negotiating over?

The details are in plain sight in Mrs May’s  hoarsely delivered  speech last Tuesday. They firm up her January reinstatement of the “ Stormont lock” which the DUP then dismissed as “meaningless.”

The lock began life in the joint report of the UK and the EU but was omitted from withdrawal agreement on the dubious grounds that it was an internal matter for the UK.

  1. In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.

In her speech last Tuesday Mrs May revived and strengthened it a little.

First, the Government will legislate to give a restored Northern Ireland Assembly a vote on a cross-community basis on whether the backstop should be brought into force if there are delays in the trade talks. If Stormont does not support that, Ministers will be bound to seek an approach that would achieve cross-community support. That could, for example, be an extension of the implementation period. It has previously been the case that the understanding was that the choice would be between the backstop and the implementation period. The introduction of alternative arrangements, of course, brings another element into that, but there is that key commitment in relation to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

If Stormont were to support an implementation period as the alternative, Ministers would be bound to seek an extension of the implementation period, assuming that that had achieved cross-community support.

Secondly, we will maintain the same regulatory standards across the United Kingdom for as long as the backstop is in force. This is a commitment that we have already made, but I can now tell the House that we will legislate to make this legally binding.

Thirdly, the Government will legislate to prohibit any expansion of north-south co-operation through the withdrawal agreement. That will remain a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly in line with the Belfast agreement. At every stage of these negotiations, my determination has been to deliver a deal that works for every part of the United Kingdom, and that includes Northern Ireland.

Leaving aside the fact that Stormont is suspended – perhaps just as well as the problem of winning cross community consent for anything doesn’t immediately arise – the big ticket item for the DUP appears to be a legal guarantee that there will be no regulatory divergence between NI and GB.  As Mrs May has just promised it what is there left to negotiate about it?

These concessions amount to a government commitment to adopt an agreed Stormont position to the EU. But there are not and cannot be a Stormont veto.

The backstop therefore appears intact but Northern Ireland will have a say on how it would  be implemented.  Last week’s Irish Times/Ipsos Mori poll suggests that 60% of the public has no problem with it – a rating to die for it you’re a politician. So what remains the problem for the DUP?   It’s hardly in their interests to remain in a  gradually shrinking camp of diehards.