“It was like binge-watching Borgen,” somebody said. But after all the drama , nothing is certain today – Theresa May’s “ back me then sack me” resignation, a third meaningful vote, even Brexit with a deal – except that the DUP will not vote for the withdrawal agreement.
Nigel Dodds should have removed any lingering doubt:
“The DUP do not abstain on the Union.”
The deep state of main party disintegration was revealed in last night’s votes. In what should have been the fairly uncontroversial vote to extend the leaving date, less than half of Conservative MPs voted for a three line whip on extending Article 50 – something they were told would cause deep legal problems. Just 150 voted for, 93 against, the rest, 74, abstained. It passed on Labour votes. Across the aisle,27 Labour MPs defied the three-line whip and voted against the second referendum proposal tabled by Margaret Beckett..
No overall majorities were expected in advance for the first series of indicative votes, but the failure of any to reach a majority was a deep disappointment. High abstentions suggested the Tories were trying to discredit the whole exercise. Last night’s modest winners were Ken Clarke’s for a customs union, and a confirming public vote from Labour’s Margaret Beckett. Labour MPs were whipped; the Conservatives had free votes. MPs were able to make multiple choices. Straws were being clutched at for a second round on Monday to whittle down the preferences from 16 to 2. But the optimism that began the exercise has disappeared. So has the momentum that for a while, seemed to be compelling the deal across the line, led by the great bellwether himself.
Plainly desperate if not actually in denial, the government still haven’t given up hopes of DUP support for the deal even now. The wishful thinkers were saying “they’re brilliant negotiators, they would only give in at the last moment. “ But give into what?
The DUP were never going to be the Conservatives’ reliable partner. Under pressure their interests were bound to diverge. It makes you wonder what they’d been talking about over all these weeks. When push comes to shove, Theresa May’s paramount aim is to leave the EU; the DUP’s existential principle is to protect Northern Ireland from any divergence from GB. The two are finally incompatible.
A more flexible cast of mind might have spotted a better solution than No in one or other of the indicative votes. Ironically, to get rid of the backstop Labour’s plan for a customs union and regulatory alignment might have suited the DUP very well.
But they never deviated from the central point which has confused many people; In all cases the withdrawal agreement must pass. Almost all the supposed alternatives debated yesterday relate to the next stage, the negotiations for the final settlement..
“We wanted to try to get a deal and when this all began we were looking to deal with the backstop. We wanted the Withdrawal Agreement re-opened to deal with that. We had made progress for domestic legislation (but).. then there was a discussion around treaty-level changes….. “
This was problem. The government might have been prepared to act unilaterally to leave the backstop if EU pressure on NI to conform to any changes the Assembly thought unreasonable. (though this would be a very controversial and possibly illegal course). But the withdrawal agreement as an international treaty would be far harder to change, if not impossible. This problem was exposed in the Commons on Monday. Why anyone thought it had gone away simply shows the extent of the government’s wishful thinking and the importance they attached both to the DUP’s numbers and their example to Brexiteers. The latter dramatically declined when Mrs May declared her intention to quit but the former remained constant. The result was that. government optimism lasted all of eight hours.
The logic of the DUP position is that if the withdrawal agreement were to pass somehow on Friday without them but with renegade Labour support , the DUP’s confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives would end. This would encourage Labour to call a vote of confidence which would be more likely to succeed than last month’s, and set the scene for a decision a fortnight later to hold a general election.
Legally Friday is the last day for Parliament to pass the withdrawal agreement and trigger the 22nd May leave date. Thereafter the deadline for a new plan reverts to 12th April. Will the EU agree to another extension or will the nightmare arrive and the UK crash out without a deal in three weeks?
The clock is ticking louder than ever.
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