Monday 22 July 2019

Analysis: Dancing Queen must soon spin around Foster's 'blood red lines'


Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, walks through the venue of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, walks through the venue of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. REUTERS/Toby Melville
John Downing

John Downing

Hoofing on stage to the strains of an iconic Swedish band, and limp jokes about the set not falling down again. Well, check your prejudices and see: it was either ultra-brave - or beyond parody.

Yet even by the melodramatic standards of party political conferences, where shameless politicos often give ham acting a bad name, this British Conservative Party's four-day gathering in Birmingham was a caricature of itself.

In her keynote address to close proceedings, Theresa May was trying too hard to compensate for the calamities of last year's event. Back then an intruder, an acute coughing fit, and a slogan disappearing behind her back combined to make that outing into a total nightmare.

But even if you deemed Mrs May's dance attempts as parody, you'd still have to agree that there were many other parody makers taking the stage. Try the ubiquitous Boris Johnson, the grassroots' darling who fails to impress colleagues, who regaled a huge crowd by dubbing his former boss's Brexit plans "a cheat". He then went on to run a series of Euromyths, or made-up yarns about the EU, which would have made rabid British tabloids seem pale.

But let's also agree Boris is, well, just Boris. Try instead the current UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt, who compared the EU on Brexit to the tyranny of the ex-USSR.

"The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving," he said, bringing right-wing populism to a new low. It certainly impressed the former East Bloc-turned-EU member states.

But this pair were in the halfpenny place compared with DUP leader Arlene Foster. On Monday she reduced the Good Friday Agreement from international treaty, voted by all of Ireland, to a piece of legislation. On Tuesday she issued a straight threat to pull down Mrs May's government if there were border checks on produce going between the North and Britain. Yesterday she repeated those threats, with a throwback to unfortunate history. "The red line is blood red, it is very red," she said. Need we discuss any further?

All in all, at last it fell to Mrs May to dance on stage for the grand finale. But here, in all fairness, it was a good speech, pitched at the middle ground of the Conservative Party.

There was no shortage of side-swipes at those trying to undermine her Brexit pathway. She tried to stress her party was one of "values" and "not ideology", and she attacked Labour. In sum, Theresa May has tried extremely hard to re-assert her authority over her totally riven party - but to very questionable effect. She might even achieve a Brexit deal of some sort with the EU by the November 18 outer deadline - if only because the EU more usually does deals of some kind. But this conference - and especially that "blood red" DUP intervention - suggests the sometime Dancing Queen will find it bordering on the impossible to get any such deal through the London parliament.

Irish Independent

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