LEADING THE WAY OUT OF THE EU

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26 June 2017

After weeks of negotiation, during which a deal appeared to slip away, the Conservatives have finally struck a confidence and supply arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists.

The published text of the deal highlights the “shared objectives” of the Tory Party and the DUP, highlighting “strengthening and enhancing the Union, security, prosperity and an exit from the European Union that benefits all parts of the United Kingdom” while making strategic use of the Tory Party’s full name: The Conservative and Unionist Party. The DUP and the Conservatives do have a longer history than many know, with plans being drawn up for a coalition in 2015 before the extent of Cameron’s victory was known and cooperation being deepened between the parties on an informal level following Theresa May’s ascension to the top job – with the DUP being hosted at last year’s Conservative Party Conference.

The document commits the DUP to supporting the government on “all motions of confidence; and on the Queen’s speech; the Budget; finance bills; money bills; supply and appropriation legislation and Estimates”. It goes on to also stress the DUP’s commitment to backing the government on all business regarding Brexit and national security in light of recent attacks on the streets of Britain.

But the DUP appear to have wrung significant concessions out of the government, as severe Tory manifesto pledges to scrap the triple lock on pensions and end universal provision of the winter fuel allowance have now been dropped. It also forced the government to flag up Northern Irish agriculture as a major policy area during Brexit talks and commit to constant rates of farm support until the end of this parliament.

And the move will be welcome to Brexiteers too. The DUP were one of only a handful of parties to back Brexit and the most prominent behind UKIP. Key figures including Ian Paisley Jr have been public about their support for a clean break from the European Union too, although they remain insistent on a smooth border between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland – an insistence shared by all parties. If Remainer Ruth Davidson had hoped that her strengthened gang of Scottish Tories could sway the Prime Minister away from a thorough break from Brussels, the new pact with the DUP will seem to be a major obstacle.

But don’t expect celebrations from the Conservative Party. The deal still leaves the party in a weaker position than it was before the general election, with the working majority cut by 2. The party is now reliant on the continuing support of the DUP – set to be reviewed in two years’ time at the next Queen’s speech – as well as the continuing obedience of Tory rebels on the right and left. Meanwhile the Prime Minister’s willingness to provide an extra £1bn of funding to Northern Ireland will strike some as venal, with the First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones already dubbing it a “bung”.

Nor does it seem to solidify the Prime Minister’s position in Number 10, with rumours now circling around Whitehall that she could yet be ousted in favour of the similarly uncharismatic Philip Hammond, who despite a reputation for quiet competence would drive serious divisions through the party with his open ambition to keep Britain locked into either the European single market or the customs union.

The Tory-DUP deal offers a hint of stability for now, and may mean a more honest Conservative government kept in line by genuine patriots in Ulster, but don’t expect it to remain stable for long.