The DUP has its ‘blood-red’ line. Does Theresa May dare cross it? | Polly Toynbee | Opinion

As the Brexit war cabinet meets this evening, it may ruefully regard its £1bn bribe to the DUP as money badly spent. As the DUP breaks its promise to back Theresa May’s precarious government, does it really mean to bring her down, or is this its usual braggadocio? In cahoots, the Mogg-Johnson European Reform Group (ERG) is stiffening the DUP’s backbone to resist the Chequers backstop deal. But other Tory factions predict over-confidently that the DUP would never risk putting a Labour leader who they perceive to be sympathetic to Irish republicans into No 10.

However, those listening closely in Northern Ireland tell me the DUP means it this time. On Wednesday night it rattled May’s cage with a display of protest by abstaining on a Labour amendment to the agriculture bill, to show it could and would. The DUP has its “blood red line”, like the red hand of Ulster, which Arlene Foster more or less threw down at the feet of EU negotiator Michel Barnier this week.

Let him see her eyeball to eyeball, hear the obduracy for himself: no border of any kind, visible or not, crossing the Irish Sea shall divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. That’s who its MPs are, what they eat and fire-breathe, their only purpose on Earth. Do they care what happens on the Irish border? Not as much as the holy UK bond across the Irish Sea: the DUP was against the Good Friday agreement in the first place. Perversely, it could end up saving Britain from Brexit altogether.

Alarmingly, most of the Tory party don’t care much about peace on the Irish border either. YouGov in June found 83% of leavers thought “the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland would be worth it to take back control”. That matches Boris Johnson’s contemptuous approach to all Ireland, indignant that what he rudely dismissed as “the Irish tail” should wag the Brexit dog. Not a lot has changed in age-old rightwing Tory scorn and condescension towards the island of Ireland.

The wretched people of Northern Ireland who voted to remain are represented at Westminster by DUP Brexiters, who now prop up the UK government. Sinn Féin is happy to sit all this out, including the empty chamber of Stormont – but imagine if at the last minute it rode like the cavalry to the rescue of all Ireland by taking its Westminster seats just once, for the last crucial “meaningful” Brexit vote. It won’t, but more’s the pity as it would be the hero of the hour who could retreat again, having saved the day for all Ireland, bringing Irish unity a step nearer.

But it would not be certain that its intervention would settle the outcome. No one knows how many MPs are adamant about anything, until the deal is there on the despatch box. Calculating how defiant the DUP will be is just one element in this multi-dimensional parliamentary game of chicken.

Frantic number-crunching at Westminster between parties and factions has yet to produce even approximate guesses. How strong is the ERG? Forty MPs? Really? Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke are setting up their own still nameless group to oppose any bad deal, claiming some 30. But how many of them flake, as they have before?

Inside Labour there is confidence that few beyond the usual renegades would vote with the government – despite Tory-spread rumours that scores are considering it. The stress on Labour MPs in leave constituencies is understandable – but most, such as Rachel Reeves, speak out in indignation if the Tories count on the likes of them. Others writhe in public, such as Caroline Flint, Lisa Nandy and Gloria De Piero. But it seems hard to imagine that come the day more than a trickle of Labour MPs will succumb to phony appeals to “patriotism” when all they are being begged to do is to save a Tory government that has torn the country apart.

Keir Starmer is rallying Labour MPs to resist what he tells me “will be immense pressure to vote for the deal to save the country and the prime minister”. Imagine the front-page rogues’ galleries of those who vote against, accusing them of “betrayal” and “treason”. Starmer says: “We will fight back hard. There is no moral duty to back a plan that is not in the national interest.” Article 50 can be pushed back, deadlines are as artificial as May’s binary deal-or-no-deal threat. He is confident very few on the Labour side will vote with this benighted government.

All that makes calculating the precise effect of the DUP on the final vote imponderable. No one knows. There may be much ratting and re-ratting to be done before the final vote.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

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