I have been making the point for some time in these columns that the DUP is living on borrowed time in terms of its hold on the Tory administration. Theresa May, while in office, knew full well that her capacity to govern depended on keeping a day to day parliamentary majority in the House of Commons. My prediction was that an early General Election, no matter what its outcome, was highly unlikely to give the DUP the balance of power again. But matters have now moved on in that Boris Johnson has lost his Commons majority – with or without the DUP’s support.
This means that Johnson and the Shire Tories now understand that they face an early election as a minority administration. It really doesn’t matter, in Westminster terms, what the DUP think of the way in which he handles the Brexit issue. Unless Johnson intends to do a quick deal with the EU 27 in the second half of October, and to have the House of Commons vote by a majority to accept his deal, the DUP votes in the lobby are irrelevant.
The likelihood of Johnson bringing home a deal which would attract the support of the DUP, the expelled Tory rebels, the newly formed independent grouping, and a good number of Labour MPs is small.
It looks increasingly likely that Johnson will not be able to get any deal agreed with the EU 27 and passed by the House of Commons before the 31st of October.
Any such deal would, in any event, require a significant transition period during which there would be regulatory alignment between the UK as a whole – not just Northern Ireland – and the EU.
The problem for Johnson is that an election held after the 31st of October on the basis of a deal which sees the UK in some form of alignment, albeit temporary, with the EU opens up his right flank to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.
Farage is likely to seek votes for an immediate withdrawal by the UK on a no-deal basis. Unless the Commons have approved a deal, the Brexit party will be able to shoot into an open goal demanding an immediate and unconditional no-deal Brexit.
So the Tory party faces a whole series of challenges. The Labour party will fight on a platform of ending austerity, increased public spending and offering the voters a final sign-off on Brexit by way of referendum. To many hard pressed English voters, particularly north of a line from the Severn to the Wash, the years of austerity have meant dwindling income, increased charges for transport and other services, and little prospect of financial improvement.
The Lib-Dems, by contrast, will offer voters an unequivocal chance to reject Brexit and to withdraw the Article 50 notification in its entirety.
The Brexit party, by contrast, will eat into the Tory vote on its right flank.
The SNP and Plaid Cymru will do well – based on regional resentment and, in the case of Scotland, a likely implosion of the Tory party there.
In these circumstances, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have their work cut out. Unless they can avoid looking for a postponement in Brussels, or put before the House of Commons a deal with Brussels which can command a majority, they seem fated to venture onto the electoral battlefield in the most inauspicious of circumstances.
Johnson, in particular, is stuck with his “dying in the ditch” statement of intent to refuse any extension beyond the 31st of October. If he chooses to disregard the law recently enacted which mandates him to seek an extension, he could find himself in the deepest legal and constitutional trouble.
Even if, as I think more likely, the UK Supreme Court finds that the courts have no function in relation to reviewing advice given by the Prime Minister to the Queen on the exercise of a sovereign prerogative, a point blank refusal to comply with the clear wording of a statute would most likely attract the wrath of the judiciary.
So very obviously Johnson’s options are extremely limited and diminishing.
Meanwhile the DUP has begun to realise that it no longer holds the Tory government by the short and curlies. Civil society in Northern Ireland – particularly those engaged in industry, commerce and agriculture – are almost unanimous in their demand that there should be no “no-deal” Brexit.
The DUP has found itself with a foot in two boats – one constitutional theory and the other economic reality. The boats are not tethered together and are beginning to drift apart. That explains the DUP shifting its feet into the economic reality boat and watching its highly theoretical and purist constitutional position floating away.
Bertie Ahern may be correct in arguing that the DUP should not be completely side-lined in the UK withdrawal process. But that does not mean that they cannot succeed in side-lining themselves by ignoring their own constituency’s economic interests and wellbeing.
Objections to Irish Sea monitoring of goods movements between the island of Ireland and the UK on the basis of such checks are inconsistent with the sovereign integrity of the United Kingdom have always seemed somewhat far-fetched. The most potent threat to the Union – and perhaps the most immediate – would be economic disruption and chaos in Northern Ireland in the wake of a no-deal crisis.
On the contrary, with a little positive thinking, special status for Northern Ireland could be of great assistance in regenerating the Northern economy.
This is a case of reconciling theory with reality. The old phrase, “That’s all right in practice but will it work out in theory” seems peculiarly apposite to doubts about special provision for Northern Ireland in the wake of Brexit.
In the last two weeks, the Tories have begun to soften up northern England for a cancellation of the HS2 project, a major infrastructural investment intended to integrate the post-industrial heartland with the more prosperous south east of England.
We are told that the cost of HS2 was ballooning towards £25bn. Whatever the rights and wrongs of HS2, it is hard to see how English voters would agree to its cancellation and at the same time approve a £15bn bridge across George’s Channel connecting Larne with Portpatrick. Johnson has floated the idea in the past to secure DUP support. He holds a land bridge to Scotland out as a bauble to keep the DUP on side. Such a bridge, if it were ever constructed, would take ten to fifteen years to complete.
In that time period, the demographic revolution in Northern Ireland will have progressed to the point that the majority of voters will be of Catholic/Nationalist background. In the intervening years, the question arises as to whether English voters, in addition to the £15bn construction bill for the land bridge, will be happy to send £10bn each year to support the Northern economy.
It doesn’t require genius to see that some things simply don’t add up. Reality is coming home with a vengeance.