LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government brushed off a threat Thursday by its Northern Irish allies to withdraw their support if she compromises too much on Brexit, just days before a crucial European Union summit.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up May’s Conservative government, threatened to vote against the forthcoming budget if she makes a deal that disadvantages the British province of Northern Ireland.
The warning, which comes amid continued opposition from May’s own Conservative MPs to her Brexit strategy, further raised the stakes as negotiators in Brussels seek a breakthrough ahead of a summit of EU leaders on October 18.
Scottish Minister David Mundell suggested the DUP would come around, however, suggesting the alternative was either a government led by opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn or a Brexit next March without any deal at all.
“I’m sure they too will be persuaded the alternatives — of no deal or potentially a Corbyn government — would not be of benefit to them or Northern Ireland,” he said.
May gathered selected members of her cabinet late Thursday to update them on the Brexit talks, with speculation she wants to secure their support before agreeing to any new compromise with the EU.
But DUP leader Arlene Foster, who has been in Brussels this week for talks with EU officials, warned May and her ministers to abide by commitments not to split up the United Kingdom.
“The prime minister is a unionist. Many of her cabinet colleagues have assured me of their unionism,” she said.
“Therefore, they could not in good conscience recommend a deal which places a trade barrier on United Kingdom businesses moving goods from one part of the Kingdom to another.”
– ‘Constitutionally damaging’ –
The key sticking point in the Brexit talks is how to keep open the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, and EU member Ireland to the south.
The EU wants to keep Northern Ireland aligned with its customs union and single market until a wider trade deal can be agreed that resolves the issue.
But the DUP’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson warned that any solution that resulted in checks on goods between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain was “unacceptable”.
Accepting such demands “would have implications not just for Brexit legislation… but also for the budget, welfare reform and other domestic legislation”, he wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
“As a unionist party, we will not give our support to any deal that includes such economically and constitutionally damaging arrangements,” he wrote.
May’s Conservative party has relied on the DUP’s 10 MPs to pass legislation in the House of Commons since losing its majority following the June 2017 general election.
If the DUP votes against the budget, which will be presented on October 29, this could trigger a confidence motion and a general election if the government loses.
Former Conservative leader and Brexit supporter Iain Duncan Smith warned the prime minister she should “listen very carefully” to the DUP, which he said echoed many Tory concerns.
May insists she will not accept any deal that creates “a border down the Irish Sea”, and instead has proposed Britain as a whole stay aligned with the EU’s customs union until a wider trade deal is agreed.
But eurosceptic Conservative MPs who want a clean break with the EU have expressed alarm at reports that this arrangement — which was initially proposed as a temporary measure — could last indefinitely under the deal being thrashed out behind closed doors in Brussels.
“Clearly Number 10 are negotiating a ‘backstop’ that makes the UK a permanent EU colony,” former foreign minister Boris Johnson warned on Wednesday.
Faced with opposition from her own side, May is reportedly seeking support from rebel Labour MPs for the final Brexit deal. In the Commons on Wednesday, she urged all MPs to “put the national interest first”.—AFP