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.


  1. Hunter


    I don’t think the Tories can credibly threaten to cut NI spending. Let’s say they did, what then? If they go through with it then the DUP could quite credibly threaten to vote in favour of a no confidence motion against the government. This would have two effects:

    1. It would force the government to sweat for 2 weeks as only during that time might the DUP reverse its decision and then vote in favour of a confidence motion that would then prevent a new election.

    2. It would expose the Tories to potential electoral losses in Britain with any new election. The Tories do NOT want a new election right now. Not even a new leadership election (in just about any other case, a leader such as May who took her party into a new election and then lost the majority they had while polls had shown the possibility of a much increased majority, would have been tossed out on her ear long ago). The Tories probably want to avoid a new election until at least 2019 or later. So the DUP threat to withdraw support if the Tories threatened to cut spending would be quite dangerous for the Tories and they know it, which is why there is already the announced increase in spending for NI.

    In this situation Arlene Foster holds all the cards (plus a whip for a good measure!).

  2. Sarah Pemberton

    The Tories do have a threat against the DUP — they could slash the existing generous public spending funding in Northern Ireland (NI). Official figures show that NI gets more spending per head than anywhere else in the UK: . Since the Tories don’t get votes in NI they can’t lose votes in NI , which means there is no reason to believe it will cost them electorally to cut spending there. At the moment there is a gap in the budget due to the rollback of national insurance rises for the self-employed, and they could fill that hole through NI cuts. I suspect some of the DUP’s demands might soften if they were faced with the prospect of NI getting the same public spending per head as the Southeast, i.e. around 72% of the current NI spending.

  3. Daniel Watts


    Just writing to clarify what I said in my twitter thread that couldn’t be compressed down fully into 140 characters. I feel like a history lesson coming on, so here goes…

    Even during the period of the Union between the entirety of Ireland and Great Britain (1800-1922), Ireland was treated as a place apart with a politics and culture very different to the rest of the UK (much greater than, say, the difference between England and Scotland). At first, the mainstream UK parties – Whigs and Tories, then Liberals and Conservatives – ran in Ireland but were regularly challenged by nationalist movements. With the rise of mass democracy and secret ballots, however, national issues came to the fore with parties splitting on Nationalist/Unionist lines. In the election of 1885, Irish voters split massively between Nationalists and Unionists who fought under the Conservative banner, in the process destroying the Irish Liberal Party. Unsurprisingly, the Unionists could win no seats outside the Northern province of Ulster. Following that election there was a hung parliament with the Irish Nationalist party holding the balance of power. In return for their support, Liberal leader and PM Gladstone introduced a devolution bill into the House of Commons. This utterly destroyed the British political system that existed to that point, as it lead to the new government collapsing as a whole host of Liberal MPs, led by none other than Nick Timothy’s hero Joseph Chamberlain, crossed the floor under the name of ‘Liberal Unionists’. For this group, there was little interest in Irish issues as such but rather a sense that the Union and thus Empire was under threat. I mention that sort of as an aside but what’s important to note is that throughout all this Westminster voting patterns were decided by local constitutional and political concerns, rather than (directly) the issue of who should form the government in London. For Irish politicians, therefore, Westminster was a place where concessions on ‘national issues’ (i.e. Irish ones) could be negotiated rather than a place where ‘our government’ was, and this was mostly true for the Unionists too.

    From the crisis of 1885, the Irish Conservative Party – which now campaigned under the banner of ‘Unionist’ – became a nearly entirely Protestant organization that almost never won seats outside Ulster, while the rest of Ireland was given over to the Nationalists. Over time the specific ‘Tory’ identity of the Irish Unionists faded as it became a catch all party for Protestants against Irish autonomy. However, it wasn’t until 1972 that the Unionist Party stopped taking the Tory whip at Westminster, but long before then it had become an autonomous party.

    Following the partition of Ireland, the island lost a lot of its centrality in British political life, going from 105 seats in the house to just 12. Until the 1970s, those 12 were overwhelmingly Unionists – usually of a deeply conservative sort who sat with the most right-wing Tories – but nearly always backbenchers. No Northern Irish politician afaik has sat in the British cabinet since partition, and I know of only one Junior minister in the time (Robin Chichester-Clark, under Heath). That was as London was peripheral to NI politics, as they had full devolution – where the Unionist party reigned supreme until it was dissolved on London’s instructions in 1972 (the event which caused the Unionists to finally resign the Tory whip). London was a sideshow. Occasionally Nationalist – or even Sinn Fein – MPs would be elected for NI, but the latter did not take their seats and the former had no influence in Westminster. There was a Northern Irish Labour Party, which occasionally did well in Stormont elections, but did only once won a Westminster seat (by Jack Beattie, who supported a United Ireland) and was organizationally separate from GB Labour anyway. They faded away during the Troubles as sectarian politics became dominant.

    With said troubles, the Unionist party became formally separate from the GB Conservative Party – while still preferring the Tories to Labour in Westminster – while on the Nationalist side, the emergence of the SDLP saw a party which tried to strongly to gain influence in London by aligning itself with Labour. Indeed their one MP, Gerry Fitt, helped to keep the Labour government of Jim Callaghan above water until turning against it in the decisive confidence vote, as he saw it that Labour had not done enough for the Nationalist community or restrained loyalist excesses sufficiently. Again, it was not the Winter of Discontent or the IMF which influenced this vote or his actions (both events are not really into the consciousness of Northern Ireland, on either side). That was British, not Northern Irish politics.

    Around this time, as the situation detoriated splits emerged within Unionism, most of which had to do with the belief that the Official Unionist Party (which increasingly became identified as the Ulster Unionist Party) had not done enough to defend Protestant rights against both the IRA and an indifferent British government. Unlike the UUP, these groups were populist, not especially right-wing on economics (although you wouldn’t describe any of them as ‘left’) and main priority was identity politics. They also had no direct connections with the Conservative Party. Over time, the DUP – with its connections to the Free Presbyterian Church – became the most dominant of these parties.

    During the Troubles, the bulk of Unionist votes went with the UUP and the bulk of Nationalist votes went with the SDLP. Both these parties had allies in London and wished to play a direct parliamentary vote. Although that the UUP backed up the Major government in its final years was and has been seen as quite damaging to the peace process, as it gave one party much greater ability to get concessions. Following the Good Friday Agreement, for whatever reason (and this is much debated), the more extreme parties began to take over from their more moderate rivals. The DUP leap-frogged the UUP and Sinn Fein likewise with the SDLP. This culminated in the result two weeks ago, where the DUP and SF won 17 of NI’s 18 Westminster seats. As before, SF would prefer a Labour government if forced to give a choice, but don’t consider Westminster legitimate and, despite contrary wish-fulfilling assertions by British Journalists, will not take their seats. The DUP, like all the Northern Irish parties, are more interested in Stormont than London but are hoping to use their current situation to their advantage in Northern Ireland, hoping to lash their support base with funds (as mentioned, their economic platform could be described as ‘populist’ – their base is Protestant Working Class and Farmers). They won’t take cabinet seats because no-one in the DUP is interested in administering the NHS in Kettering or the school system (which is separate and very different in NI) of Knowsley.

    Attempts to appeal to Northern Irish voters by linking their vote to what happens in Westminster has not been shown to be successful. In 2010, in hope it would reverse the flagging of their fortunes, the UUP entered into an open alliance with the Conservative party under the name “Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force” (UCUNF). However, it backfired. Their one remaining MP, Sylvia Hermann in North Down, left the party in protest as she had developed a close relationship with the Labour government and usually voted with it and not the Tories. She is now an independent MP for North Down and the only non-SF/non-DUP MP left in Northern Ireland. While at election time, they won nothing back and saw yet another drop in their vote share. That the SDLP seemed fairly happy with Corbyn as Labour leader and made no indication that they would drop the whip against him, despite his Sinn Fein connections, did not help them at election time, as they lost to the same Sinn Fein, leaving there being no Irish Nationalist MPs at Westminster for the first time since the 1964-1966 parliament.

    Northern Irish politics is, what it has been since 1885 if not far earlier, a world into itself where, despite its constitutional position as part of the United Kingdom, the government of said entity is rarely the focal point of politics – much more important is who rules locally. This is despite regular dismay at politics as done at Westminster – Thatcher’s economic policies were not popular in this ex-industralized reason while today the DUP want a lot of the Tory’s austerity to be reversed. Otoh the liberalism of modern Britain is alien to NI. Northern Ireland remains the only jurisdiction in the UK where abortion is a crime and gay marriage not allowed, a fact which has gotten quite a lot more attention than it usually does over the past two weeks. Now, as in 1885, it looks like, at a very poor moment for the UK, Ireland will reinsert itself into Westminster politics. What effect that will have on politics on either side of the Irish Sea is yet to be determined.

  4. anonymous

    Nice post.

    “none of the parties in England, Wales or Northern Ireland (that make up >97% of the UK population)” should read “in Great Britain”.


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