Boris Johnson has urged the Democratic Unionists to maintain their alliance with the Conservatives, as the Northern Irish party intensifies its battle against Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
The former British foreign secretary was guest speaker at the DUP’s conference in Belfast on Saturday, which was dominated by party’s rejection of the “backstop” to prevent checks on the border with the Irish Republic.
Conservative Brexiters such as Mr Johnson have aligned with Arlene Foster, DUP leader, as they seek to vote down the treaty in Westminster next month. But she has warned that the confidence-and-supply deal that keeps Mrs May in power would be at risk if the treaty is passed.
Hundreds of DUP activists cheered Mr Johnson as he urged the party to stick with the Tories and called for a renegotiation to “junk” the backstop, an agreement to keep the Irish border open after Brexit even if there is no new EU-UK trade deal.
“To our allies in the DUP I hope that you agree that it is absolutely vital that we keep this partnership going and that we are not so complacent as to abandon the government of this country to a man whose avowed policy is to break up this country,” Mr Johnson said, referring to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“Unless we junk this backstop we are going to find that Brussels has got us exactly where they want us — a satellite state.”
His remarks are seen as a bid to curry favour with the DUP, whose votes the Tories need for a majority in Westminster, in the event of Mr Johnson making a bid to succeed Mrs May as Conservative leader. His warning about the prospect the Tories losing power if Mrs Foster scraps confidence-and-supply comes amid DUP worries about historic links between Mr Corbyn and militant Irish republicans.
Many in the party view Mr Corbyn as an IRA sympathiser during the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland that ended after the 1998 Good Friday peace pact, which the Labour leader denies. “It’s thanks to the arrangement between our two parties that we were able to stop Corbyn from taking over,” Mr Johnson said.
The pro-British DUP has warned it will vote against Mrs May’s treaty. The party fears the backstop will draw Northern Ireland closer to Dublin and Brussels by maintaining EU trade rules in the region.
In her speech, Mrs Foster urged the prime minister to renegotiate the deal and accused her of breaking her own commitments. “On the one hand, we are told the backstop would be the best of both worlds and on the other we are told it is unlikely to be needed,” said the text of the speech circulated before she spoke.
The alignment of Northern Ireland with EU regulations was not in the UK national interest, Mrs Foster added. Still, she said the DUP “will not be found wanting” in its efforts to secure a better outcome to the talks. “The reality is that if we are to secure a better outcome than is currently on offer then the only option is to look beyond this current draft withdrawal agreement and work in the time ahead for an improved outcome.”
Philip Hammond, UK chancellor, had addressed a private DUP dinner on Friday in a bid to persuade the DUP to change its stance. On BBC radio on Saturday Mr Hammond said that a no-deal Brexit would unleash economic “chaos”.
“If the meaningful vote is lost we are in uncharted territory. We will be faced with potential economic chaos, I am sure we would get a very negative reaction from the business community, from investors, from the markets,” he said.
Questioned on whether he believed Mrs May’s deal was better than remaining in the EU, Mr Hammond replied: “I believe so, yes”.
But two DUP delegates who listened on Friday to Mr Hammond saw no reason for the party to change its stance. “He did not convince me one bit,” said Paul Stevenson, a dairy farmer from County Fermanagh.
Lord Hay of Ballyore, a DUP member of the House of Lords, said Mr Hammond’s argument was very clear. “This deal or no other deal. For ourselves, we would see it slightly differently.”
The DUP’s power-sharing government with the Irish republican Sinn Fein party collapsed almost two years ago after a botched renewable energy scheme that cost taxpayers up to £490m. Mrs Foster, who was minister in the government department that set up the scheme, apologised for the affair. “As a party we are deeply, deeply sorry for the mistakes we made, and for the things we got wrong during that period.”