Despite repeated public assurances to the contrary, Boris Johnson is privately preparing to agree a Northern Ireland-only backstop, senior Tories have claimed.
Last night – just hours after DUP leader Arlene Foster said she was “encouraged” by what she had heard from the Prime Minister – BBC Newsnight reported that Mr Johnson is planning for Northern Ireland being treated very differently to the rest of the UK.
Last night’s report suggests that Mr Johnson may be preparing to abandon the DUP for the second time in six months, despite the party having ensured he became Prime Minister.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds told Newsnight that he was “quite relaxed about the way things are going” and “I think Boris Johnson knows what he is about”.
When asked about the possibility of Mr Johnson agreeing to an Irish Sea border, Mr Dodds, who had been chatting to Mr Johnson in the MPs’ dining room last night, said: “I don’t expect Boris Johnson to do anything of the sort”.
However, he said the DUP may accept “arrangements” which align Northern Ireland with some EU rules, contrary to the rest of the UK, so long as Stormont consents to it.
Newsnight’s political editor Nicholas Watt said that he had spoken to two senior Tories – one a Remainer and one a Brexiteer – who are “convinced” Mr Johnson is working on a deal”.
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Newsnight said Mr Johnson was understood to be concerned about the long-term uncertainty which could flow from a no-deal departure from the EU and was therefore interested in a “Canada Plus” free trade agreement with the EU.
Newsnight said that the two senior Tories who are familiar with Mr Johnson’s current thinking said that he is willing to contemplate a version of the “Northern Ireland only backstop” which would see Northern Ireland remaining tied to EU rules in areas “where there are already elements of an all Ireland economy” such as agriculture and electricity.
By contrast, the rest of the UK would be “free to chart its own course...[which] would create a border down the Irish Sea”, Mr Watt reported.
He said that the government would be “wary of calling the new mechanism a backstop”.
The Remainer senior Tory told Newsnight: “Boris Johnson is not a unionist. So he would think nothing of throwing the DUP under the bus if that was in his interests.”
However, the Brexiteer insisted that Mr Johnson would not abandon the DUP and believed that Mrs Foster could sign up to a deal if three conditions were met.
He said those conditions would be: the re-establishment of devolution with a role for Stormont in the deal, codicils confirming the government’s commitment to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and the areas where Northern Ireland would remain closely aligned to the EU would be in areas which are currently or largely run on an all Ireland basis.
Meanwhile, a journalist from The Sunday Times has reported the threat of significant loyalist unrest if they believe Brexit undermines Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.
John Mooney said: “I met a number of loyalists connected to UVF in Belfast recently. The message was clear. Anything that changes status of Northern Ireland will be greeted as the start of a process to lead to United Ireland. I would anticipate serious civil disturbance.”