Is there anything to be said for the John Major Option?

I have been critical of the DUP in the past but Jeffrey Donaldson has my sympathy. By failing to push through a vote on his deal over the Windsor Framework last Friday, Jeffrey Donaldson seems to have damaged his reputation and his authority in the DUP. His indecisiveness does not look good but decisions always look easier from the outside, or in retrospect.

He has 3 obvious options left, but I will suggest a 4th option which is risky and brave, but might work.

  1. He calls another party officers meeting in a couple of weeks and tries to force through the decision that we thought was due last Friday, using the traditional ‘back me or sack me’ threat.
    This looks unlikely to work as he is now viewed as being weaker than before, so why would he get more support from the undecided? What will have changed other than more ‘consultation’.
  2. He resigns as leader – he has done his best and now it is someone else’s turn.
    On a personal level he can remain MP, but a perception of failure could increase his chance of defeat in his Lagan Valley seat while at the same time making a seat in the Lords much less likely.
  3. He keeps pretending to seek further concessions from the UK government for the remainder of this government, knowing perfectly well that they will not be offered, while waiting for a new Labour government that might be able to unlock more compromise. This is risky. He remains leader in name only and if the results in the May (or November) general election are poor for the DUP, he will shoulder the blame and have to go.

The final option is the John Major option.

In 1995, ironically because of a Tory split over the EU, John Major became hopelessly embattled in battles with the Eurosceptics – the ERG of that time. In a surprise move, Major resigned as leader of his party and encouraged those opposing him to stand against him for the leadership. John Major was re-elected as party leader and this act of courage stabilised his party, allowing him to continue for another 2 years in government. Could Jeffrey do something similar?

If Jeffrey resigned as DUP leader and asked his opponents to put up a candidate against him, someone who would lead the DUP on a different path, is there a risk that he could lose? Perhaps. Someone like Carla Lockhart could link up with Nigel Dodds and try to lead the DUP in another year of boycotts, but how attractive would a continuation of that failed strategy be? And how would the electorate respond to a clearly divided and directionless DUP in the May or November election? Losing in this way is possible, but Jeffrey would at least have the satisfaction of going down fighting.

Alternatively, if his party re-elected him as leader, Jeffrey would have the authority to push through the deal which he clearly believes is the best for N. Ireland and that bravery would likely be rewarded at the ballot box.

Such a strategy would upset the TUV and other loyalist commentators. It might anger loyalist paramilitaries, but if Jeffrey, having just won a leadership ballot, took such a brave decision, he would find that those outside the TUV and loyalist sphere would support him.


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