The Democratic Unionist leader, Arlene Foster, has said she and her 10 MPs will not vote for a second EU referendum but did not rule out backing a “Norway-plus option” that is gaining support in the Commons.
In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Foster confirmed the DUP’s opposition on Theresa May’s withdrawal deal over the proposed backstop arrangement for Northern Ireland.
She urged the government to look for a better deal that did not treat Northern Ireland differently. Foster said: “If the backstop is implemented, there will be checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland … and that means there will be extra costs for the people of Northern Ireland.
Foster said the separate treatment of Northern Ireland under the withdrawal agreement was “not a slight difference”. “I think it is 291 regulations from Europe that we have absolutely no say in after we leave the European Union,” she said. “There is a huge democratic deficit coming our way if we agree to this deal, because we have no say over the rules that will apply to Northern Ireland.”
Asked about a second referendum if May’s deal was rejected in parliament, Foster said: “We won’t vote for another referendum.”
She appeared more open to a Norway-plus compromise in which the UK would join the European Economic Area. Proponents of the option point out it would avoid a hard border with Northern Ireland because the UK would stay in a customs union with the EU.
Asked about the idea, Foster said: “We have always been very clear with the government that our one red line was that we shouldn’t be differentiated from the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of customs and in terms of regulatory alignment.
“We are very open to allow the government to work away at other solutions in terms of what is the best way to leave the European Union.”
But she stopped short of fully signing up to the Norway idea. “What we are saying is let us not waste time on this deal where there is no enthusiasm – and it is very clear to me that it is not going to get support in the House of Commons.
“Let us look for a better deal. A deal that is good not just for Great Britain, but is good for Northern Ireland as well. What we want to see is taking back control of our money, and our borders and our laws. And unfortunately Theresa May’s deal doesn’t do any of that.”
Asked if the Norway option might do that, she said: “No I’m not saying that. I’m saying that we should look for a better deal. And we of course are speaking to colleagues in the Conservative party and indeed wider right across Westminster to try to find that better deal. We are not going to be prescriptive in that better deal. What we want to do is to make sure that the referendum result is respected.”
Elsewhere, the prime minister’s deal gained the backing of Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader and a prominent Brexiter, who had appeared ready to resign from the cabinet over the agreement.
Leadsom was one of the “pizza club” of pro-leave Cabinet ministers who held informal meetings to discuss their response to May’s plans. But in a letter to her constituents she said the withdrawal agreement should be backed as “there is no other deal on the table”. She admitted that endorsement came after a “challenging journey”.