The general election result caught many by surprise but when it became clear that the Tories would fall short of a majority all media attention turned to the prospect of the Tory-DUP agreement to keep the government going. This went into overdrive when Lib Dem leader Tim Farron ruled out any coalition or agreement with the Conservatives. With all other MPs in parties openly hostile to the Tories, with the exception of the DUP, the Conservatives found themselves backed into a corner but there remain problems with what they wish to achieve.
The Tories are in a difficult position because they have had a Queen’s Speech, thus demonstrating their intent to govern, but they have not yet secured the support of the DUP. Further, they won’t call another general election because Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party become more popular by the day. This new political reality has meant that the Tories must do a deal with the DUP as nobody can see a Tory-SDLP-Plaid alliance happening any time soon. And many commentators seem to think that the deal is essentially an inevitability because they are the only two right-wing parties in the House of Commons. However a quick inspection of the two parties’ policy positions rapidly throws up some problems.
The Cameron-Osborne Conservative modernisation project was essentially to jettison the social conservatism of the Thatcher years whilst retaining the neoliberal monetarist approach to economics. This goes some way to explaining why the same government sought to cut welfare payments to the poorest in society and also introduced same-sex marriage in England and Wales. The premise of this was to move the Tories toward the new centre-ground of British politics which no longer had an appetite for the staunch, often religiously-informed, social conservatism of previous decades.
The DUP, however, did not go through a similar ideological realignment. The DUP, whilst also a right-wing party, are conservative in different ways to the modern Tory Party. Ian Paisley’s former party oppose women’s rights, namely abortion, and LGBT equality whilst the Tories support these policies. The DUP also oppose or abstain from voting on fox hunting, which is why many believe that fox hunting legislation was omitted from the Queen’s Speech.
However the other important dimension is that the voting base of the DUP in white, working class Protestants. As a result, the party opposes the Tories’ economic agenda. The DUP voted with Labour to oppose the introduction of the Bedroom Tax, opposes the Draconian cuts to welfare that have made Iain Duncan Smith such an unpopular figure, and support the triple lock for pensions, thus putting them in agreement with Labour rather than the Tories.
The only significant policies that I can see the DUP and the Tories agreeing on is the reintroduction of grammar schools and increased investment in infrastructure. It’s important to note, though, that the Tory promises on infrastructure spending are vague and many involve private sector involvement in public services. Disproportionate investment in Northern Ireland will also stoke resentment from English Tories who have been bombarded with media stories about English taxpayers subsidising Scotland. It will not take much for these English journalists to get out the knives for a Prime Minister that many believe to be on her last legs.
Further, the support from 10 DUP MPs to reintroduce grammar schools will likely not help Theresa May. Under the English Votes for English Laws system in Westminster, it is unlikely that non-English MPs will vote on the issue, as education is a devolved matter. Also, there are significantly more than 10 Tory MPs who oppose the reintroduction of selective education and so Theresa May will be back to square one.
I’m not going to go as far to say that a deal with the DUP will not last for very long because it is conceivable that we have a zombie parliament that doesn’t attempt to get much legislation passed and thus preserve its own position. But what I do believe is that internal party splits over austerity economics, social care, the environment, Europe, and education will inevitably lead to a government that is far from strong and stable.
If the DUP and the Tories had irreconcilable differences on one issue then you could easily see how the partnership could last, but there are so many fundamental areas where the Tory leadership and influential backbenchers have stark ideological divisions. Whether or not a deal with the DUP will last is something that we will only know with time, but to say that Theresa May will be a commanding, authoritative Prime Minister is a ludicrous suggestion. Theresa May will go down as a PM who simply presided rather than actually governed.