Arlene Foster’s future as DUP leader continues to hang in the balance after party colleagues mounted a heave against Stormont’s first minister.
It is understood a significant number of DUP politicians have signed a letter of no confidence in Foster that was circulated among party MLAs, MPs and peers.
If those numbers are confirmed and subsequently replicated in any future leadership contest – a vote confined to MPs and MLAs – her five-and-a-half year tenure as leader would be set to end.
It remains unclear whether Foster would contest a leadership vote if one is triggered.
On Tuesday afternoon, the first minister attempted to downplay the scale of the internal revolt, which comes amid mounting discontent among party faithful over her leadership.
“Stories on leadership come up from time to time, and it’s one of those times,” she said.
However, in an apparent indication of the escalating situation, Foster cancelled a scheduled meeting with secretary of state Brandon Lewis and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill on Tuesday evening.
In a statement, the DUP insisted questions over Foster’s future were an internal matter.
The party said its democratic electoral processes were for its members and declined to offer further comment.
There has been growing unease among DUP members about Foster and the wider party leadership in recent months.
The primary source of concern is the handling of the Brexit process. The DUP is facing anger from the wider loyalist and unionist community for the introduction of an Irish Sea border.
Critics have accused Foster of failing to use the party’s influence at Westminster – particularly during its confidence and supply deal with the Conservatives – to secure a Brexit deal that saw Northern Ireland leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.
She has also been accused of not being vociferous enough in opposition to the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs the new Brexit trading barriers between NI and GB, ahead of its introduction at the start of 2021.
Poor recent polling numbers have exacerbated the discontent within the party faithful, who are mindful of next May’s looming Assembly election.
Foster’s decision to abstain in a vote on gay conversion therapy last week appears to have further agitated sections of the party’s fundamentalist grassroots.
On Tuesday morning, the Belfast News Letter reported that several DUP constituency associations had written letters expressing concern at Foster’s abstention on a motion that called for a ban on gay conversion therapy but did not incorporate a specific mention of protections for religious practices.
The majority of her party Assembly colleagues voted against the motion, having failed to amend it to include reference to religious protections.
Foster was among only five party members, including fellow Stormont Executive ministers Peter Weir and Diane Dodds, who abstained.
That episode points to tensions between Foster, a member of the Church of Ireland and former Ulster Unionist, and the more traditional Free Presbyterian wing of the DUP, who perceive her as potentially too moderate on some social issues.
Foster was asked whether her leadership was in question on a visit to a youth centre in Belfast on Tuesday afternoon.
“We’ll just deal with it and move on because I’ve bigger things to do, including getting us through this Covid pandemic, including listening to the concerns of working-class communities,” she said.
“These stories come up from time to time. This is no different.
“I haven’t received any letters from constituency associations so I’m not going to get into a running commentary on these issues, they come up from time to time. I think it’s important to note that there is the big job of work to do. We have a year left of this mandate.
“It’s important that we lift our eyes and continue the work of rolling out of the (Covid-19) restrictions, deal with the Northern Ireland Protocol.”