Ben Lowry: The DUP dilemma is whether or not to stay close to Brexiteer Tories

Jacob Rees-Mogg MP arrives at the Institute of Economic Affairs for its Brexit research paper in London in September 2018. Mr Rees-Mogg has praised Arlene Foster for her uncompromising comments on Brexit, but did the same to Theresa May until she went for soft Brexit. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Jacob Rees-Mogg MP arrives at the Institute of Economic Affairs for its Brexit research paper in London in September 2018. Mr Rees-Mogg has praised Arlene Foster for her uncompromising comments on Brexit, but did the same to Theresa May until she went for soft Brexit. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

To get a glimpse of the agonising political dilemma facing the DUP, consider something that took place yesterday on Twitter, the phone and online forum in which people express short snippets of their opinions.

At first glance it was an innocent moment, in which one Twitter user agreed with another, which happens on Twitter as frequently as people disagree with each other.

In this instance, the Tory backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg — a man who could yet become prime minister — expressed public satisfaction at a message of clarification that had just been tweeted out by the DUP leader, Arlene Foster.

Mrs Foster had used her Twitter account to contradict a story in Friday’s edition of The Times, which reported that her party was open to the notion of a softer, Norway-style Brexit.

The DUP leader said: “We want an agreement which returns control of our money, our laws and our borders through a UK wide FTA with the EU.”

Mrs Foster added: “The story in the Times is an attempt to cause division. Such tactics are not new to us ...”

It was a strange thing for her to say. The Times had said that it had spoken to two senior party figures, who both said that a key consideration for the DUP was that any solution to the Brexit impasse apply to the whole of the UK.

So unless that paper was making up those quotes, which would be remarkable, then it was not deploying a ‘tactic’, let alone trying to seed division. The report seemed, instead, an attempt to establish what solution the DUP is likely to back to Brexit, now that it has crucial influence at this time of national crisis.

The Times report was further un-surprising because DUP figures have previously said that it is of paramount importance to them that Northern Ireland is treated the same as the rest of the UK.

Indeed, Mrs Foster said it herself in a recent interview with The Times, in which two of the paper’s leading reporters concluded that “it does not bother her whether the UK adopts a Canadian-style free trade agreement or a closer Norway-based arrangement with the EU”.

Their interview with Mrs Foster quoted the DUP leader as saying: “We have never been prescriptive, it’s up to the prime minister to decide what the future trading relationship should look like. All we have ever said to her is, ‘Please do not cause any divergence between Northern Ireland and GB.’”

Mr Rees-Mogg’s response to Mrs Foster’s clarifying tweet, in which she dismissed the suggestion that the DUP was open to a softer, Norway-style Brexit, was simple. He did not get into details and did not speculate on past or present DUP positions on the subject.

He just re-tweeted Mrs Foster’s message, and added: ‘No one pushes the DUP around. #StandUp4Brexit’

The message was a flattering one, and Mr Rees-Mogg is good at flattery.

But Mrs Foster will hardly have missed a possible hint of menace lurking behind the goodwill from one of the UK’s most prominent and popular advocates of a full Brexit, in which Britain leaves both the single market and customs union.

Because Mr Rees-Mogg was similarly flattering about Theresa May during that long period, between 2016, when she became prime minister, and the summer of last year, when she repeatedly insisted that she was negotiating just such an emphatic Brexit.

During that time, there were repeated reports that the prime minister might be about to compromise on one of those red lines, but Mr Rees-Mogg repeated his glowing endorsement of Mrs May and expressed his faith that she would countenance no such thing.

But she was countenancing it, and after the PM’s Chequers plan emerged, which stayed close to the customs union and which Brexiteers dismissed as a capitulation to Brussels and setting the scene for vassalage, Mr Rees-Mogg turned on Mrs May, ferociously.

He has been publicly damning of her failures ever since and was one of the leading voices seeking her removal from Downing Street in the recent internal vote of Tory MPs on her leadership.

The Brexiteers need the DUP very much now, and the government does too. The party will not be able to placate both, unless the government and the Brexiteers dovetail. And that currently seems unlikely because the prime minister is looking in the opposite direction, and is seeking to make common cause with MPs across the political spectrum. This probably means an even softer Brexit than that which was foreshadowed by the Withdrawal Agreement— unless there is a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

On Tuesday, the day of the government’s disastrous defeat, I was talking to a clerk in the House of Commons, an expert in parliamentary procedure, who told me that he thinks MPs have under-estimated how hard it will be to stop no deal.

No deal would be in theory be good for the DUP, in strictly pragmatic terms, in that a crash-out would apply UK-wide. But I suspect it would be disastrous for unionism for three reasons:

First, it would destabilise the political mood on this island (as well as in Great Britain).

Second, I fear the government would rush through bilateral agreements with Dublin that would perhaps be even worse than the backstop.

Third, and probably superseding the point above, the government would fall. There are more moderate pro EU Tories than there are DUP MPs and they have made clear that they will not tolerate ‘no deal’, so I think there would be another no confidence motion, that the government might lose.

This would probably lead to a general election.

I have long had a hunch that a general election is coming, because there are too many irreconcilable factors working against each other.

If so, we will move deeper into uncharted territory, because it is far from clear the differing Tory factions would be able to fight such an election under the same umbrella. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that there will be pro and anti Brexit candidates, so that such an election would become a fresh referendum by proxy.

It would not surprise me if anti EU candidates won a Commons majority. In that case, the DUP would be, again, in a commanding position. But the opposite could happen too, and for now the party has to make clear whether the rumours it is open to a soft Brexit, as would be logical if avoiding a border in the Irish Sea was the top DUP priority, are as wrong as Mrs Foster says.

And if it says it is open to softer, its lack of resolution on a ‘pure’ Brexit will enrage the Brexiteers — some of the only people who have stood by it.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor