Will the DUP risk bringing down Theresa May?

Arlene Foster warned that any extra barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Britain after Brexit would be "catastrophic". Credit: PA

Maybe I was wrong (words I probably don’t say enough).

I thought the DUP would be fairly pragmatic about the terms of the “backstop” designed to keep open the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland till a permanent solution is found (stop smirking).

So when I learned that the draft backstop deal agreed on Tuesday by UK and EU officials contained “only” a requirement for additional physical checks in and around the Irish Sea on agriculture and food, I thought the DUP could probably live with that.

How so?

Well there are already such checks. And what is being proposed was simply an increase from 10% to 100% in checks on livestock and foods to verify them as healthy and conforming to EU standards.

It didn’t look to me like the great betrayal the DUP fears most, viz the creation of a NEW border between the mainland of GB and NI.

Would the DUP really want to pull the rug from under Theresa May and risk a general election over a few more cattle and sheep inspections?

What I had not appreciated is that it is not just the physical border that worries the DUP. It is the mooted conceptual one.

What is an anathema to the unionist party is the proposed constitutional change - namely that for as long as the backstop was in operation, Northern Ireland would be part of the EU single market, subject to all its rules and regulations (and privileges) when Great Britain would not be.

It is of little comfort to the DUP that the EU has made clear there will not be checks AT THE BORDER on goods flowing from GB to NI to verify they conform to EU standards - and all such checks would be done effectively by electronic self-certification in the workplace or marketplace.

The very idea NI businesses could be subject to different rules and regulations to mainland GB businesses is a step too far for the DUP - especially since this would also mean NI not getting access to free-trade deals negotiated by Westminster with the likes of the US and Australia.

Now the problem with this principled opposition by the DUP to NI staying in the single market, even when the reality of it is “de-dramatised” in the manner proposed by Michel Barnier - the EU’s chief negotiator - is that I struggle to see a compromise.

Because the obvious compromise, of keeping the whole of the UK in the single market and therefore eliminating any new constitutional border in the Irish Sea, is impossible - because the EU would only allow the whole UK to stay in the single market if May agreed the free movement of EU citizens to the UK could continue till the backstop were no longer needed (and that might be never).

And if the PM agreed to an extension of free movement, she would probably be writing and signing her own resignation letter.

So, in case you had not spotted, this is an unholy mess.

Which is why the DUP is already working to rule in respect of its agreement to prop up the government (by abstaining last night rather than vote with the Tories in opposition to Corbyn’s amendment to the Agriculture Bill), and is threatening to join the opposition - by voting down the budget, then any Brexit deal put before the Commons, and then against the PM in any vote of confidence under the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

You might argue that a right-wing DUP would never trigger a general election that could usher in a Corbyn government. But they would beg to differ: their posturing reinforces their core vote, they believe; and they might think any election could land them an even more pivotal position in the government and governance of Britain.

This is a game of chicken with literally the highest stakes. And as I look into the eyes of Arlene Foster, Angela Merkel (for ultimately she will decide how the EU responds) and Theresa May, I literally have no idea who will blink first.

PS: A great skulking huge dog that hasn’t yet barked, but will, is that in this “de-dramatisation” of NI border checks, Barnier effectively conceded that technology is a solution to keeping borders open. Which is what the Brexiters of the ERG have been averring all along, in making their case that a Canada-style free trade deal between the UK and EU is indeed consistent with keeping open the border between NI and the ROI - in stark contradiction of the PM’s position.

You don’t have to be a very sophisticated conspiracy theorist to wonder whether Barnier is acutely aware of this implication - and that he is secretly hoping Johnson and Davis will use the stick he has given them to beat the government into chucking Chequers and picking up their free-trade plan. Since he has already made clear that their off-the-shelf Canada-style proposal is much easier for the EU to agree than sui generis Chequers.