In its most explicit threat to topple Theresa May if she does not meet the DUP’s “red line” on Brexit, Arlene Foster’s party has warned that it could vote against this month’s budget if it does not have sufficient reassurances that there will be no Irish Sea border.
Yesterday, in what appeared to be an authorised briefing operation, senior DUP sources almost simultaneously told the BBC and Sky News that it was prepared to vote down the budget.
And significantly, the party yesterday abstained — rather than backing the government — in a vote on the Agriculture Bill in what MP Sammy Wilson said was a “warning shot” to Downing Street.
Regarding the claim that the DUP may vote down the budget later this month, a DUP source told Sky News: “It is unacceptable that we would be treated differently to the rest of the UK. We will not be bounced into anything.
“If Theresa May doesn’t take our concerns on board, she may not be the leader to take us through Brexit.”
Mrs Foster did nothing to dispel that claim when on multiple occasions she was asked about the issue yesterday afternoon in Brussels, instead choosing to side-step the question and repeat her party’s unbending adherence to its “one red line”: No new customs or regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, or vice versa.
And, in evidence of distrust between the DUP and the Tories, a DUP spokesman did nothing to dissuade the News Letter from the idea that the party is now prepared to press the nuclear button which would likely lead to a change of prime minister.
When asked whether the DUP would vote down the budget if it is unhappy about the Brexit situation, a DUP spokesman said: “Our position and red line is clear and hasn’t changed. The government are well aware of what the party position is. Our fundamental position is that we want to maintain the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK.”
In flexing their muscles so openly, some in the DUP believe that Tory MPs are very unlikely to vote for a new election and therefore a defeat on the budget would precipitate a change of leader, rather than a change of government or an election.
That is significant from the DUP’s perspective because it would mean that the party’s deal for £1 billion of funding for public services in Northern Ireland – most of which has not yet been paid – would continue under a new leader.
The DUP has been clear that its confidence and supply deal was signed by the chief whips of the two parties, rather than the leaders, and is therefore not dependent on the fate of either Mrs May or Mrs Foster.
Speaking to the News Letter last night, DUP Brexit spokesperson Mr Wilson said the decision to abstain in the Commons vote on the Agriculture Bill was “a reminder not to take DUP support for granted”.
He added: “We had indicated to the government that we weren’t very happy with what we were hearing about the discussions surrounding Brexit and the backstop.”
When asked if this move was a sign of things to come, Mr Wilson replied: “Hopefully not. But the confidence and supply arrangement we have with the government is a two-way thing. We wanted to remind them that if NI is treated differently to the rest of the UK, there will be consequences.”
The MP was also asked about the claims his party could vote against the budget, to which he responded: “We are not saying what we will do when it comes to the budget. But we are reminding the government that we will honour our commitments to them and we expect the same in return.”
Meanwhile, DUP MP Gregory Campbell sought to play down claims regarding the budget vote as “premature speculation”.
The East Londonderry MP told the News Letter yesterday: “No decision has been made about potentially voting against the budget.
“Of course it could happen and that has always been the case. The government knows our position.”
Over the last fortnight the DUP has been increasingly open about its concerns around Mrs May’s leadership and last week Irish diplomats picked up on the level of DUP angst as a hint that Mrs May could be on the verge of doing a deal which would enrage the party which props up her government.
But although it is not threatening Mrs May’s position, the DUP also has its own leadership problems which make it more difficult for Mrs Foster to soften its stance.
Weakened by both the absence of an Assembly – which means she has now not been first minister for almost two years – and a slew of devastating revelations at the ongoing public inquiry into the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, Mrs Foster is in a particularly weak position within the DUP from which to compromise, even if she was willing to countenance wavering on her Brexit red line.
Amid rumours of the potential for a leadership change before the party’s annual conference at the end of November, tomorrow night the party’s MPs and MLAs will meet in a hotel on the outskirts of Portadown.
A DUP spokesman played down the significance of that meeting, describing it as routine and saying that it had been called by Mrs Foster.