It is tempting to think that, on the way out the door, Theresa May’s purged advisers took revenge by implanting one final bad idea: “Prime Minister, you absolutely have to do that deal with the DUP.”
But let’s be fair. Casting around for survival is what minority governments do. Labour turned to the Liberals in 1977; the SNP embraced the Tories in 2007; the Tories coalesced with the Lib Dems in 2010 while claims that both Labour and the SNP courted the DUP at that time are unrefuted.
So no line of high principle has been crossed and it is cant to claim otherwise. The wisdom or otherwise of Mrs May’s deal is purely a matter of political calculation and it is on these grounds it is puzzling, because she did not need it, and damaging because of perceptions it reinforces.
The general election sent out a message that many voters are fed up with austerity and more open to radical alternatives than suspected. The sudden discovery of an extra shed-load of money, to be disbursed for crude political advantage, is unlikely to impress those who feel that enough really is enough.
That applies to the low-paid and the fabled ‘just about managing’ across Britain; to pay-capped NHS workers and teachers, whether in Thurso or Penzance. That the money has been secured by a political party which is shrouded in dubious history and represents an extremely sectional interest adds to the oddity of it all.
Let us also be clear what the deal is not. While it might be an affront to all sorts of interests, it has absolutely nothing to do with the Barnett Formula. Presumably those calling for David Mundell to resign are not so ignorant as to believe otherwise, so we should simply put that down to theatricals.
There may be a case for a Bung Formula, so that if one part of the UK gets a bung, everywhere else should too – though that would rather defeat the purpose. Otherwise, the reality is that May has rewarded Northern Ireland, via the DUP, in return for parliamentary support and if the rest of the UK is aggrieved then it should be aggrieved together. The most effective assault I’ve seen has not come from any politician but a Liverpudlian on Victoria Derbyshire’s TV show, widely shared on social media, who thought the billion might have been better spent on mental health and other deprived areas of public spending. That’s the real political point rather than the bogus Barnett one.
Concerns about the impact on Northern Ireland’s peace process are also melodramatic. Whatever its other merits, the downside of the Belfast Agreement was that it elevated two extremes of Northern Ireland politics, Sinn Fein and the DUP, at the expense of those who had honourably resisted them.
Once united in power with money aplenty, they found it remarkably easy to co-exist. Paisley and McGuinness became the ‘Chuckle Brothers’. Relations were no less harmonious when Peter Robinson led the DUP, even if orange and green galleries still had to be played to. Permit me an anecdote.
A few years ago, I led a trade mission to Brazil and was greeted by the consul-general in Sao Paulo. Robinson and McGuinness were on the same plane but the Belfast Agreement required separate protocol arrangements involving an Irish diplomat of comparable status, so one was imported from Mexico. Box ticked, no harm done.
They were opening a George Best exhibition at the Morumbi stadium and clearly got on famously. Our paths crossed again in Rio but by then a brouhaha had developed at home – Robinson was attacked for being in Rio on St Patrick’s Day when the Statue of Christ Our Redeemer would be floodlit in green. He beat an exit to the next stop, which happened to be Hollywood, to await McGuinness’s arrival when doubtless the camaraderie resumed. It was farcical but also grimly illustrative of how divisions which killed thousands could be set aside, once power beckoned and accommodations were needed to retain it.
Arlene Foster’s emergence may have upset these relationships but the fundamental truth remains – to consolidate political dominance and control of the money, the DUP and Sinn Fein need each other. After the required rituals, the prospect of an extra billion is unlikely to make them any less keen on returning to power and the spoils that go with it.
Having dealt with these two distractions, we come back to the real reasons why this agreement is scarcely worth the price Mrs May is paying, in money and credibility. Quite simply, the returns – in terms of impact on the fate of her government – are likely to be marginal.
Given Sinn Fein abstentionism, the DUP would need to vote against her to threaten the Tory majority and her real safeguard, without any deal, is that hell would freeze over before the DUP would facilitate Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. That will not change as long as Labour is under its current management. On the other hand, Mrs May cannot do deals with the Grim Reaper. Half a dozen by-elections or defections could see her gone and another election forced. If that happens sooner rather than later, the DUP deal will not only be irrelevant but also a difficult piece of recent history to account for.
The Prime Minister’s reason for calling an election was to obtain a cushion against irreconcilable anti-EU elements within her own party. DUP votes are insufficient to provide it. If the arch-Brexiteers move against her on any issue that offends their obsessive streak, they can bring her down. In that respect, she is in no different position from John Major in the 1990s, which was not a good one.
Meanwhile, at Holyrood, we heard the fruits of the First Minister’s “reflections” which turned out to be much like her pre-reflection script. She formally gave up on a timetable which wasn’t happening anyway while committing to manoeuvring towards the same end.
It would be easy to say “nothing has changed” but, of course, it has. A year ago, this might have been hailed as smart politics. Now it seems like a tedious rehash from a one-dimensional politician with nothing much else to say.