Wounded May limps on
Theresa May is severely wounded but remains in office. In a bullish speech outside Downing Street which skated over her election defeat she claimed that the country needs “certainty”. Using the full title of the Conservative and Unionist Party she asserted her intention to govern for five years with the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists.
The tone was steely and uncompromising, provocative in its refusal to acknowledge the reverse she has suffered. May survives as Prime Minister because Tory MPs are averse to the idea of electing their third leader in two years and terrified of the prospect of another general election which they could well lose. Her apparent level of denial will provoke muttering amongst Tory MPs. Nevertheless it is likely because of their fear that she will be propped up by her party in the short term and possibly – though much less certain – to the conclusion of the two year Brexit period. Certainly she must be counting on that to have made the speech that she made. But it will also increase not decrease the pressure on her advisers who are becoming the lightning rod for internal discontent.
The price of office
Her deal with the ten Democratic Unionists gives her, on paper, a relatively good working majority in the Commons but there are a lot of complications in doing a deal with the DUP. Ministers will cease to be honest brokers between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland so there is little prospect of a return to devolved government there.
New roads, jobs and extra benefits – or pork barrel as it is known in the US – can be expected, targeted at the communities which DUP politicians represent. History suggests that the government will spend whatever it takes to ensure their support. The emphasis on deficit control – once the central feature of British politics – is gone. Austerity plays second fiddle to parliamentary arithmetic.
What does a DUP deal mean for Brexit?
Aside from economic rewards, a core political demand of the DUP is that there should be a seamless border between north and south, that Northern Ireland should not be afforded ‘special status’ within the European Union which means that Northern Ireland should be treated no differently from any other part of the UK. That means a ‘soft’ Brexit in the sense of ‘unfettered access to the single market’ and retaining access, as far as possible, to unskilled and skilled labour.
The DUP is also less hard-line on reducing immigration and in broad terms the party’s position on Brexit may best be described as moderate. Continued UK membership of the single market and the customs union would solve their problem about a hard border. But that may not be an outcome Theresa May could get past her own backbenchers. Senior Tories warn that the party could tear itself apart if a Norwegian-style EEA arrangement was put on the Brexit negotiating table.
A fragile and weak arrangement
The new minority government is very fragile. The ability of May to attempt a programme of any substance looks limited.
The failure to secure a majority means that the Lords would not regard themselves bound by the Salisbury Convention, which requires them to support manifesto policies of a majority government. It is possible that the Government may need to reach some level of agreement with Labour, if only to pass the so-called Great Repeal Bill which is legally necessary to be completed before Brexit.
Before the election No10 dominated the Government. That power has evaporated. The Cabinet will now flex its muscles against a weakened premier. Any reshuffle will likely be very limited in scope and may be limited to replacing the ten ministers who lost their seats.
May’s loss of authority makes her incredibly vulnerable and many Tory MPs will have considered plunging the knife. But the prospect of an early election is greeted with dread and the politician’s instinct for self-preservation means that they may have to live with her for now. It will not be a happy time for either.