Katy Balls

Can the government win back the DUP?

Can the government win back the DUP?
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Theresa May's Christmas holidays will hold little in the way of festive cheer for the Prime Minister. In order to win last week's confidence vote, May had to make a number of promises that will be difficult to keep. Top of that list is her pledge to win back the support of the DUP, the party's confidence and supply partners.

Relations between the DUP and the government hit a low earlier this month owing to the fact No.10 pressed ahead with a backstop arrangement which Arlene Foster's party say they cannot support. This led many Tory MPs to question whether they could support the deal given that it would also most likely spell the end of the party's confidence and supply agreement and therefore mean an early election. With the government delaying the vote, May has told MPs she will try and win a legally binding exit clause from the Irish backstop. The DUP have said they are in listening mode so will wait and see what May comes back with.

As the Guardian reports today, Cabinet ministers argue that if May can get the DUP to support her deal, then it starts to look like a very real possibility that it could get over the line. Speaking to ministers in recent days, I've been struck by how they see the DUP's backing as essential to this deal making it through Parliament. In that vein, it hasn't gone unnoticed that Julian Smith – the Chief Whip – enjoyed a drink this week with Nigel Dodds and former chief whip Gavin Williamson. Now Defence Secretary, Williamson was crucial to the government forging a relationship with the DUP in the aftermath of the snap election. His colleagues say he has played an important role in recent weeks in trying to improve government relations with the party. Notably, Williamson has met with the DUP twice this week.

So, will it work? The problem is that for all the refreshed optimism on the UK side – with Brexiteers and the DUP pausing their hostilities over Christmas – over in Brussels the mood music is bleak. The EU side insist that they will not renegotiate the backstop. No.10 meanwhile insist talks are ongoing. It could be a case of bluffing but EU insiders say the summit went very badly for May and EU leaders feel little need to help. Unless Brussels agree to a substantive legal change or side solution the DUP's support will remain out of reach – no matter what schmoozing goes on behind the scenes.

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor. She is also a columnist for the i paper.

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