Nearly 16 months have passed since Theresa May’s minority government was formed, propped up by a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party. May defended the highly controversial (and rather expensive) deal forthrightly at the time, since she was starkly aware that simple arithmetic dictated her dependence on the support of the DUP in the Commons.
Since then, though, the political climate has shifted rather dramatically, especially in relation to Brexit. Swathes of MPs from numerous parties are now openly advocating a second Brexit referendum, with the Labour leadership perhaps on the brink of making the backing official. Keir Starmer has suggested that the referendum result could be ignored and the party line appears to be that any deal May presents will be opposed to the death, even if that makes a No Deal Brexit more likely.
At the other end of the spectrum, the European Research Group, bolstered by the resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davis and the profile explosion of Jacob Rees-Mogg, has stepped up its activities and buttressed its standing in Parliament as the Brexiteer voice. It is now the go-to place for Tory rebels. A letter to the Prime Minister from the ERG in February urging her to stick to the principles of her Lancaster House speech received direct endorsement from no less than 62 Conservative MPs.
None of this is terribly surprising. The Prime Minister produced a Brexit proposal and is sticking to it, albeit with staggering vociferousness. Some noisy backbenchers are in disagreement. The Opposition opposes the government, as indeed it should, though it too is burdened with significant backbench rumblings.
The DUP, though, does not seem to have noticed that any of this is happening; its rhetoric has not changed at all since the election so that, today, its comments look entirely misplaced. For instance, Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Leader in Westminster, said: “We will vote against [May’s Brexit deal]. We will vote for our red lines.” (The most significant of those red lines by far is, of course, the party’s opposition to any backstop or customs complications regarding the Northern Irish border.)
Similarly, Arlene Foster vowed to “never allow” any such compromise to be implemented through a Brexit deal, adding: “We are not bluffing.” This brand of hollow threat has been churned out by the party PR machine for some time; back in June, for example, Dodds said that May would “rue the day” she called the DUP’s bluff on Brexit.
These statements are baffling because they suggest that the DUP’s leverage is as strong as it was a year ago — which it is not, by a long way. The simplistic post-electoral world where May’s minority government was supported by the ten DUP MPs is long gone. Now, owing to the volatile climate in the Commons as crunch time approaches, things are infinitely more complex. Clearly, it makes far more sense for May focus on appealing to her own MPs (and trying to win over some Corbyn-phobic Labour members) than allowing herself to be held hostage over arguably the most important issue in the Brexit negotiations for the sake of less than a dozen votes.
Theresa May no longer leads a minority government teetering on the edge of plausible existence, held in place only by the strings Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds twirl between their fingers. Rather, she heads up an embattled government and a deeply divided party, opposite an equally split Labour party. Unequivocally, her ability to pass any Brexit bill through the Commons will depend considerably more on the mood in the two main parties than the Northern Irish vote.
The numbers of Tory and Labour MPs whose votes on such a bill are uncertain and whose decisions will decide the future of Brexit vastly outweigh the influence of the DUP in the House. Although still entirely valid on paper, the deal signed last June is now essentially worthless in practice. The threats sprouting from the top of the DUP are fading into nothingness and the Prime Minister will continue to concentrate her energy where it is warranted.