Legally Opinionated

In Office, Not In Power

She Decides: Arleen Foster, MLA, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party effectively pulls the strings on the Conservative minority government (image obtained under this Creative Commons licence)

Just an hour ago, the Conservative Party (led by Prime Minister Theresa May) announced that it had reached a so-called confidence-and-supply agreement with the Northern Ireland-based Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Accordingly, the DUP has agreed to support the Conservative minority government on all issues of parliamentary confidence (including the vote on the Queen’s speech later this week) and finance (also known as “supply”, which most prominently include the budget and any appropriations bills). Crucially, the DUP has also agreed to support the Conservative Party on legislation pertaining to the UK’s proposed withdrawal from the European Union.

The terms of the agreement further outline the arrangements via which the cooperation between these two unequal partners will be effected: a coordination committee of representatives of the Conservative and Democratic Unionist parties will meet frequently to discuss the UK Government’s priorities and resolve any issues. In terms of issues, the agreement bears a very parochial signature – Northern Irish issues like agriculture, armed forces support and the winter fuel allowance for pensioners have been highlighted as central issues. Crucially, the UK Government has committed itself to ensuring the “triple lock” on state pensions (whose abolition the Conservative Party had originally campaigned on during the recent general election campaign), as well as the maintenance of the same level of farming subsidies in Northern Ireland “until the end of the current Parliament”, scheduled to be in 2022 – well after the United Kingdom’s proposed withdrawal from the European Union.

The final passage of the three-page agreement is intended to reassure those who placed the UK Government’s neutrality and role in the Northern Irish peace process in doubt. The DUP pledges not to interfere with the UK Government’s role as a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, whereas the UK Government pledges to proceed with the restoration of the Northern Irish Executive and Legislative Assembly. Whist the shape of Brexit has not been explicitly mentioned, the following sentence stands out: “Both parties agree on the need to recognise the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland’s history and the effect this had on the economy and people from all parts of the community. Both parties agree the need for additional support for Northern Ireland, as set out in the annex to this agreement”. That annex outlines a generous financial aid package for Northern Ireland, including £400 million/2 years for infrastructure development in Northern Ireland (for a duration of two years), £150 million/2 years for the provision of high-speed broadband connections in Northern Ireland, £100 million/2 years for healthcare modernization measures, £50 million/5 years for mental health investments, greater flexibility in the disbursement of funds already left over from previous years and a prospective transfer of corporation tax rates to the devolved authorities, including those of Northern Ireland.

What this agreement underlines is the fact that the tail is now wagging the dog: The Conservative Party has become fully dependent on a party with a mere 10/650 seats in the House of Commons. There can be no more talk of “strong and stable” anymore – and Mrs May’s days as Prime Minister appear to be numbered, even though she will politically survive past the Queen’s Speech vote. What is also notable is the fact the most commitments in the agreement have been made with a view to 2 years, not the full 5 years of the 2017-2022 Parliament. It appears that the DUP wishes to extract the maximum price for what it expects to be a rather short-lived engagement of convenience. Further, one is also left to wonder how well the dropping of pivotal promises on welfare and social issues will play with fiscal conservatives within the governing party, and how social liberals within the Conservatives will react to the deal with a party that still rejects climate change, abortion, same-sex marriage and evolutionary theory.

The “unique circumstances of Northern Ireland’s history” may also hint at another price the DUP has extracted from the Conservative minority government – a softer Brexit, especially as it campaigned on a Brexit focused on maintaining the flow of trade with the Republic of Ireland. This would also chime with another development that has made its way into the British papers: Circles in the Conservative Party, given the Prime Minister’s loss of her majority and her missteps in regard to the recent Grenfell Tower fire, are now giving serious consideration to Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond as May’s successor as Prime Minister, ostensibly on a caretaker basis. One advantage of such an arrangement? Mr Hammond is known as the proponent of an economy-centred Brexit, one that considers the interests of the financial services sector, as well as the impact on Britain’s trade relations across the world – plausibly, he would be sellable to the DUP as a palatable figurehead to its partnership with the Conservative minority government.

This agreement is a brief respite – at this juncture, whether it guarantees anything more than short-term survival can be legitimately doubted.