A Johnson premiership will not be the DUP’s finest hour

Posted By: June 20, 2019

Party’s real decision is where to position itself in relation to frontrunner’s Brexit strategy

Newton Emerson. Irish Times. Dublin. Thursday, June 13, 2019.

No candidate for the Conservative leadership can govern without the DUP. That bald fact of parliamentary arithmetic is not receiving the attention it deserves, even in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it is just too exhausting to contemplate in these endlessly complicated times.

Of all the candidates only environment secretary Michael Gove has made it an issue, claiming he is in “a strong position” to command DUP support as “a unionist to my bootstraps”.

All indications are the DUP thinks Gove is an unreliable oddball. In any case, his star is fading after a cocaine revelation, with foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt replacing him in the rankings.

 Hunt has wooed the DUP by saying he would give it a role in his Brexit negotiating team. As the EU insists there is nothing left to negotiate, the value of this is debatable.

 Hunt is believed or hoped by many MPs to be a secret Remainer, who will talk tough to get into office then deliver the softest of Brexits. This is not necessarily a problem for the DUP leadership, many of whom are quietly hoping for the same thing. However, that means they would not want to be on the team that ends up getting the blame.

 What counts most in Hunt’s favor are his religious convictions. The DUP has reportedly been impressed by his interest in helping persecuted Christians around the world.

 He has a strikingly unusual pro-life voting record and wants to halve the limit on abortion in Britain to 12 weeks. BBC Newsnight spotted this as a factor in the leadership contest and asked candidates if they would extend abortion to Northern Ireland. Everyone carefully demurred by explaining the issue is devolved. In Hunt, the DUP can discern a true sympathizer with its social conservatism.

 Final ballot

 Gove and Hunt are merely fighting for second place, however. Boris Johnson has the most nominations among MPs, so will have to be in the final ballot of two candidates put to party members, among whom he is the overwhelming favorite.

 Although there is a history of favorites failing to win the Conservative leadership, in this case, Johnson’s opponents really do have a mountain to climb. Coverage of the contest is distracting from the fact it is barely a contest at all.

The DUP has had enough dealings with Johnson to know exactly how flaky and treacherous he is. It is appropriate that he encourages comparisons with Churchill, who praised the loyalty of Northern Ireland but would have betrayed it for the slightest advantage, as all Unionists are aware.


Johnson was the headline speaker at the DUP’s annual conference last November, where he delivered a tub-thumping if rambling attack on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. In March this year he promised never to support it – then voted for it two days later.


The following month, with May clearly damaged beyond repair, the DUP held talks with Johnson to try to rebuild trust around a more concrete understanding. The party offered to put him in Downing Street in return for an assurance he would not leave Northern Ireland alone in the “Backstop” while taking Britain out, thereby creating the dreaded sea Border. No such assurance was apparently received.


Johnson can assume the DUP will have to keep him in office, if not support him in office, as its only alternative is triggering a general election – a nuclear option it declined to use against May despite falling out with her completely on Brexit.


May would quite possibly have lost an election to Labor’s Jeremy Corbyn. Polling currently shows Johnson would be returned with a large majority of MPs, unlike every other Conservative leadership candidate, casting the DUP back into Westminster irrelevance. These polls could be wrong and might change dramatically, but for the moment they make an election a threat to the DUP rather than a threat it can use.

Cash and waffle

Renewing the DUP-Conservative Confidence-and-Supply Agreement will be among the first items in the new prime minister’s in-tray. Johnson can almost certainly buy the Unionists off with cash and waffle.

The DUP’s real decision is where to position itself in relation to his Brexit strategy before it inevitably ends in failure, betrayal or both.

 In the meantime, the Tory leadership contest risks having a more immediate impact on Northern Ireland. The DUP is back in the limelight, strutting on the national stage. Sinn Féin is on the back foot after disastrous elections North and South. In the zero-sum game of Northern Ireland politics, that means unionists are getting cocky.

 This week Tánaiste Simon Coveney said the “mood music” at Stormont talks was the best it had been in two years, then admitted there was still deadlock on all the same issues. The inference is the DUP now assumes Sinn Féin must do a deal, yet has not budged an inch towards a deal itself. A grandstanding Johnson premiership will be of zero assistance.