In the UK’s Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition between 2010 and 2015, neither side could get all it wanted. Deals were struck and there was some give and take. Both sides understood the needs of the other to some extent, meaning – for example – that the Lib Dems restricted Tory euroscepticism somewhat, yet Tory-driven austerity persisted. Neither party had a strong incentive to walk away from the coalition as to do so would have looked irresponsible towards the country, and this was relevant as both parties go after the same voters in England, Wales and Scotland. The so-called ‘quad’ of Ministers – Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Alexander – held everything together organisationally.
So why then is May struggling to repeat this with the DUP since the election on 8th June? The DUP may be smaller than the Lib Dems in 2010, and the Tories larger, but their leverage is much greater as I will explain.
The DUP yesterday – on the day of the Queen’s Speech no less – stated that negotiations “haven’t proceeded in the way we would have expected”. “Conservative high command ought to stop their backbenchers whingeing about the DUP and show our party some respect” the party added. Let us also not forget that the Queen’s Speech was delayed by 2 days to try to conclude a deal between the Tories and the DUP, but then the speech went ahead anyway without a deal in place. May’s own incompetence and undue haste to deal in the 48 hours after the election could well be a factor here, but the past fortnight’s travails with the DUP are a sign of what is to come.
This Alan Travis piece is the most detailed exposé of what the DUP is demanding as a price for its support for the Conservatives, and it is no surprise that Tory backbenchers will balk at some of that. More money for Northern Ireland when English regions are struggling due to austerity? Demands about a soft border post-Brexit, calling plans to leave the Customs Union into question? Substantive changes on corporation tax and airline passenger duty? Meanwhile the only Tory to emerge from the general election with her reputation enhanced – Ruth Davidson with her 13 Scottish Tory MPs (more than the DUP’s 10) – can feel especially aggrieved, not least due to the LGBTI rights issue.
But what can the Tories actually do about any of this?
The problem as I see it is that no-one outside Northern Ireland has any leverage over the DUP. If the DUP over-demands, it faces no real downside to not achieving its ends. It can point – once more(!) – to the rest of the UK not taking Northern Ireland seriously. The forgotten province – again. Any actual practical gain for Northern Ireland will be banked and then the battle will move to the next issue.
Among the UK’s major parties, only the Conservatives ever run candidates in Northern Ireland, but they polled a measly 0.4% there in 2016. The UUP in Northern Ireland – who had traditionally had a more collaborative relationship with the Tories – have been roundly beaten in recent years as Daniel Watts points out. Twitter user @Aldamir also has some excellent thoughts here. This means none of the parties in England, Wales or Northern Ireland (that make up >97% of the UK population) can stand to profit if the DUP does not succeed with its demands.
Putting this another way, in 2010 the Tories and Lib Dems had credible threats against each other if the other one did not deal. Now the Tories have no credible threat against the DUP, and hence the Tories are in a remarkably weak position. Meanwhile every day that drags on without a deal for May is one more win for the DUP – they are doing their job in the UK press making Northern Ireland’s issues heard.
Ultimately all the DUP has to do is keep May’s government stumbling forward, and extract concessions on a case by case basis. The first case of this could be next week – if the DUP abstains on the Queen’s Speech vote the Tories will win that vote 317 to 315, close enough to give May serious jitters. Plus with the complicated rules to force a no confidence vote thanks to the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act it would be entirely conceivable that May’s government cannot get much of its legislative programme through the Commons, but the DUP would choose to not topple her as they would actually like a Corbyn premiership far less. The government would be bound to a DUP-enforced stasis. While the Brexit clock is ticking.
I wondered if there was any precedent for such an odd arrangement anywhere else in Europe, and mused about it on Twitter. The consensus is that there is not – because at least some parties are fully national in the cases with strong regionalists (CSU is only in Bayern while SPD is national, PSOE does not run in Catalonia but PP does, and there was no fully different electoral region in Italy or Slovakia) while the rough parity in size of Wallonia and Flanders increases the likelihood of collaborative outcomes there. Leonardo Carella wins the nerdy award for citing French Polynesia as an example, but even there we concluded the parallel did not hold.
So the DUP might be small (in terms of MPs total) but they have the power to cause May enormous problems. They can make huge demands without any sanction if they do not see these demands achieved. At the same time they can play things to make sure May’s government nevertheless survives. The Tories can whinge about them but the critique washes over Arlene Foster and her band. And as the comparison with other European countries shows there’s no precedent from anywhere else where a tiny regional party has such sanction over a governing party.
Think about it. If you were in the DUP’s shoes you would ask for the world as well. Relying on their support is going to be a massively bigger problem that anyone is so far admitting.