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Seduced and abandoned. The DUP’s chances in the general election

November 20th, 2019

Even as a famous swordsman, Boris Johnson must be proud of the way that he has so comprehensively screwed the DUP. His Prime Ministership has not so much been a refutation of their strategy as a confutation of the DUP themselves.  

The DUP have for many years campaigned as unflinching unionists.  Though they choose to forget the fact now, they campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement as a sell-out. They are not ideologically Conservatives: they are free-spending cultural conservatives of the type of party that UKIP once aspired to be or, on their better days, as the Blue Labour movement once described.

It was perhaps not too much of a surprise that they should have campaigned for Brexit. Indeed, they acted as a conduit for funds for the Leave campaign that were used across mainland Britain, including a cover wraparound for the Metro. Who knows whether that aggressive pro-Brexit stance helped get Leave over the line?

With the benefit of hindsight, that looks to have been a terrible decision. The DUP did not take Northern Ireland with them – it voted decisively to Remain.  The resultant upheaval has done more to put Northern Ireland’s place in the union in question than any other development since the Troubles ended.

Worse, Theresa May came back with a deal that the DUP vehemently and successfully opposed on the basis that its backstop placed unacceptable constraints on Northern Ireland, only for Boris Johnson to come back with a deal that drives a wedge in the union down the Irish Sea. If implemented, Northern Ireland’s glidepath towards a united Ireland looks inexorable.

Meanwhile, the Northern Irish Assembly remains suspended. It resat for a day as the DUP sought to stop Westminster imposing gay marriage and abortion rights on the province, to no avail. The DUP now look those most dangerous of things for any political party: impotent and ineffectual. They are finding out the hard way that it is a short step from the “never never never never” of Ian Paisley to the “never never never never never” of King Lear.

The DUP now find themselves under attack from all sides. Unionists of all stripes decry them as having failed to stand up sufficiently for the union.  Leavers have fallen silent. Nationalists sense that the tide of history is flowing in their direction.

Opinion polling in Northern Ireland is sparse, largely carried out by the excellent Lucid Talk.  Its most recent poll, taken earlier this month, made grim reading for the DUP (with recorded changes from the last UK general election):

DUP 28% (-8%)

Sinn Fein 24% (-5%)

Alliance 16% (+8%)

SDLP 14% (+2%)

UUP 9% (-1%)

Lucid Talk are looking to produce an MRP-based poll in the final week. It should make for gripping reading.

At the last election, the DUP took 10 seats and Sinn Fein took 7, with the remaining seat taken by the remarkable independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon, who is standing down this time. She will be much missed by many, though not by the Conservative and Labour leaders, both of whom felt the lash of her tongue at different times.

What might happen this time? Here are the 18 seats presented from a DUP betting perspective. Note that once you get down to the green part of the table, the DUP may not be in contention or even standing. 

Despite the DUP’s recent history of complete failure and despite the most recent polling, bettors are actually expecting the DUP to get through this election in reasonable shape. They are 5/6 (the bookies’ evens) or better to take 10 seats again, albeit a different 10 from those that they currently hold. Lady Sylvia’s surprise decision not to stand again has opened up a seat for them that they would not have been expecting and they are helped in Belfast North – which promises to be a battle royal – by the fact that their main opponents there, Sinn Fein, are also struggling to match their performance last time round.

The party on the rise, the Alliance party, suffer from exactly the same problem as the Lib Dems, their sister party in Great Britain: they are undoubtedly doing much better but it’s hard to tell exactly where. Like the Lib Dems, many of their prices are hard to square with electoral reality.  

They are short-priced in North Down and South Antrim, but they did not reach 10% of the vote in either constituency last time round. It’s more likely in both seats that the Alliance will siphon off enough votes from the UUP this time to let the DUP hold the seats. The Alliance in practice may be hoping to establish themselves with some good second places this time round.

Like their sister party, the Alliance party appeal particularly to younger urban voters, particularly those keen to put the province’s sectarian history behind them.  So you would particularly expect to find them in the nicer areas in and around Belfast. Those familiar with the TV series The Fall will have seen that middle class Belfast in the streets of south Belfast around the Malone Road is very comfortable indeed and the Ormeau Road has more than its fair share of hipsters. The SDLP will be hoping to retake Belfast South from the DUP, particularly since Sinn Fein have stood aside (they took 16% of the vote last time) but since Northern Ireland’s urban professionals are much more clustered than in England, the 5/1 on the Alliance in that constituency might represent value. It’s a wild seat where the winner has got more than a third of the vote in only one election since 2001.

Belfast East is the Alliance’s other big chance.  On paper, the 10% swing required is more than the 8% swing that polling suggests has taken place between the DUP and the Alliance, but again the concentration of younger urban professionals may mean that we can expect outperformance by the Alliance in such constituencies. I’d rather be betting on the Alliance at 15/8 than on the DUP at 2/5.

Elsewhere the SDLP can hope to take Foyle and perhaps South Down just by standing still. In such seats quite a few unionists already vote SDLP to try to keep out Sinn Fein.

At present, it looks as if the seats will show broad stasis at this election between unionists and nationalists, with a slow rise of the unaligned.  Like the fortune of Mike in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, the DUP’s power looks set to decline gradually then suddenly.  This, however, is the gradual stage.

Alastair Meeks