Yes, desperate times call for desperate measures and Theresa May is desperate. Once upon a time, the Conservative Party could always rely on the tacit support of Ulster Unionists to ease the passage of unpopular legislation through the Commons, though the Northern Ireland peace process has negated favouritism in recent years and the blue bridge across the Irish Sea has been closed to traffic for quite some time now. There was also the self-conscious rebranding of the Tories by David Cameron, seeking to lose the ‘nasty party’ tag by promoting a series of socially liberal reforms that culminated in same-sex marriages; not only did this infuriate old-school commentators in a more traditional Tory vein such as Peter Hitchens; it also alienated the Conservatives from their ancient allies in the Loyalist camp.
However, Theresa May has a new best friend in the bullish shape of DUP leader Arlene Foster, so the Conservative and Unionist Party is back in business. It’s a strange kind of friendship, though – a bit like Chris Evans surrounding himself with sycophantic ‘friends’ on his Radio One breakfast show in the 90s, all of whom were on his payroll. Like him, Theresa May has bought her friendship, bribing the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her fragile administration. Of course, a minority government entering into a deal with another party isn’t unprecedented, but it’s rarely done in such a crass manner.
In 1977, with the tiny majority he inherited from Harold Wilson gone after a by-election defeat, Labour PM Jim Callaghan approached Liberal leader David Steel to set up a working arrangement between the two parties; faced with the prospect of a motion of no confidence in the government, something that would probably have led to a General Election, Callaghan agreed Labour would accept a small number of Liberal policy proposals and Steel agreed to support Labour in what became known as the Lib-Lab Pact.
The Lib-Lab Pact, though far from being a coalition (no Liberal MPs were added to the Cabinet), enabled Callaghan to survive in office in 1977/78 – even if the presence of several Liberals in Labour territory wasn’t exactly harmonious; Chancellor Denis Healey, for example, seriously clashed with the Liberal MP seconded to his turf. The agreement officially ended that autumn, when most were anticipating the PM would call a General Election. As we all know, he didn’t, and his minority ministry lost a vote of no confidence in March 1979 before going on to lose the following Election.
As far as 2017 is concerned, the power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland has been in disarray for months – the Assembly hasn’t sat at Stormont since Martin McGuinness’ resignation as Deputy First Minister in January, triggering March’s election; yet suddenly, after dragging its heels in efforts to restore the Northern Ireland Executive, the Government has now decided the province is worth investing in. ‘It’s not a bung for the DUP!’ declares Theresa May’s dullest, greyest sidekick Michael Fallon when questioned about the £1b extra public spending promised to ensure DUP support, though to so blatantly contradict the Barnett Formula – which is supposed to guarantee funds will be distributed evenly between the devolved UK nations – by offering Ulster a great wad and not doing likewise to Scotland or Wales is playing a dangerous game.
The ‘Magic Money Tree’ the PM coldly denied the existence of in response to a nurse asking her when she could expect her first pay-rise in eight years has proven itself to be of magic proportions indeed; there’s obviously something in the soil in the No.10 garden, for the tree has abruptly sprouted an abundance of notes right at the very moment when Mrs May needed them to prolong her perilous premiership. At the moment, the PM is acting like an ailing parent bequeathing her estate to her three children and making it clear to the other two who her favourite child is. When the future of the Union is so shaky, this deal hardly bodes well for our troubled family of nations.
Last week’s pruned Queen’s Speech – mysteriously stripped of the most contentious proposals in the disastrous Tory Election manifesto – was a bizarre affair all round, with Her Majesty deprived of both her husband and her usual monarchical regalia; the presence of stand-in Prince Charles was deemed by one wag as akin to a ‘bring your kids to work’ day. Brenda’s blue hat, with its strange resemblance to the EU flag, was perceived by some as an oblique comment on Brexit, though it seemed Mrs Windsor’s mind was more on getting back to Ascot as fast as her golden carriage could carry her than the oddly unceremonious ceremony and its consequences. MPs vote on it this week, and with the DUP nicely paid off, it should be carried.
It was interesting to note that Theresa May’s signature was absent from the document making the DUP deal official yesterday; it may have not been a necessity, but it could be also be viewed as further proof that her days are numbered. The fear that her imminent removal would then require a fresh document being drawn up and the whole unedifying business having to be negotiated again would at least have been eased by its absence; but it’s not as if there are endless impressive contenders queuing-up to step into the PM’s kitten heels. For the moment, Theresa May is clinging on and will countenance any compromise to stay put.
© The Editor