27 Mar 2019

Waiting for the DUP

Last week the talk was very much about how the DUP wanted to know that a huge chunk of the ERG was going to move towards the Prime Minister’s deal before properly contemplating a switch themselves. Since then, there has been a bad fallout between Mrs May and the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds which, it seems, was not greatly repaired at a Monday night meeting between the two.

But the gestures of faith that the ERG is moving have been happening, including Jacob Rees-Mogg’s very public recantation in the Mail today and Boris Johnson’s speech last night. The DUP don’t want to be backing a loser if they switch to backing the Withdrawal Agreement but it’s not yet clear they’re ready to do that.

Key to all this sequencing are assurances which are being extracted from Theresa May’s team in private and which she may nod to tonight when she speaks to the 1922 Committee gathering of Tory MPs.

The ERG negotiators want to hear a commitment by Mrs May to quit office in the next few months. It’s quite clear there’s a big appetite for that around the Cabinet table too. Andrea Leadsom left little doubt about that in a series of interviews this morning in which she backed the Prime Minister to get the UK out of the EU but pointedly not to hang around after that to negotiate the new relationship.

That promise of an early departure isn’t only aimed at the Tories who want it though. There’s been mounting concern in the DUP that they feel they meet a different Theresa May each time they go into see her. Some in the DUP leadership believe that No 10 is broken beyond repair and only new Conservative leadership will change that.

But the Withdrawal Agreement has been portrayed by Brexiteer critics as a giant trap that won’t allow a future Prime Minister to construct all the dizzying free trade agreements and other delights that come from shedding the EU yoke. What will a future pro-Brexit Prime Minister actually be able to do to unpick that?

Steve Baker, the ERG diehard showing no signs yet of backing the Prime Minister’s deal, has referred to how it would be like coming on the pitch when your team is 10-0 down at half time and it would be beyond challenging to turn it round and break out of the surly bonds of the EU. But what is the game plan and does it involve breaking the rules,  maybe even ripping up aspects of the deal? It’s a point Dominic Grieve just made at the pro-second referendum press conference. He said his party would not survive such an exercise and he could “confidently predict my party would split.”

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