When David Cameron and Nick Clegg stood in the Downing Street Rose Garden on a spring day in 2010 to announce the formation of a new coalition government, the easy-going tone between the two leaders caused many to wonder whether this represented the beginning a new era of bipartisan co-operation. After 13 years of New Labour, Cameron and Clegg seemed to represent the natural next step for British politics, a fresh alternative to the clapped-out government of Gordon Brown, and as they joked together in the Rose Garden whilst promising ‘a new politics where the national interest is more important than party interest,’ the curtain seemed to be finally closing on the age of polarisation and division. Seven years, two general elections and an EU referendum later, both men have been ejected from government, party leadership and even the House of Commons, their political careers over at the relatively young age of 50. Likewise, the progressive and unifying politics that they once embodied now lies in tatters, replaced by a pervasive sense of division and acrimony.
Yesterday saw the formation of a government that could not be more different from the Tory/Lib Dem coalition of 2010, as Prime Minister Theresa May finally reached a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party after weeks of negotiations. Whereas Cameron and Clegg offered a liberal, technocratic agenda that seemed rooted in the political centre-ground (at least to begin with), Mrs May is now relying on the most stridently right-wing party in the Commons to prop up her ailing government, and in return the DUP have been offered £1 billion in extra spending for Northern Ireland. As the Prime Minister met with DUP leader Arlene Foster in Downing Street yesterday to announce the new deal, there were few people who seemed pleased with the outcome. Fundamentally this is pork barrel politics which sees the Tories jumping into bed with a party that is homophobic and deeply sectarian, yet it is also a necessary evil which will provide the country with a certain amount of stability at a time when it is much-needed.
That isn’t to say that all of the Conservatives’ problems have disappeared. Theresa May’s position as Prime Minister remains precarious, with rumours of a leadership challenge before autumn’s Party Conference currently flying around, whilst the new government’s slim majority remains small enough to be easily overcome in parliamentary votes by the determined group of moderate Tory rebels on the backbenches. Additionally, this deal is the final nail in the coffin for the Tories’ controversial election manifesto, as the Prime Minister has been forced to abandon plans to scrap the pensions triple-lock and introduce means testing for pensioner benefits. The great irony of this situation is that the proposals which got Mrs May into this mess have now all been shelved, a final humiliation for a Prime Minister who gambled on a snap election and lost everything.
There are many reasons to be sceptical about the wisdom of striking deals with the DUP. Their social conservatism risks toxifying the Tory brand after a concerted effort by David Cameron to modernise the party by introducing same-sex marriage and promoting LGBT rights, and this could further weaken Conservative support amongst young voters. An even more pressing concern is the impact that this deal will have on the fragile political situation in Northern Ireland, where power-sharing has collapsed and the formation of a new administration looks highly unlikely. The Conservatives’ authority to act as an impartial mediator between the DUP and Sinn Fein in power-sharing talks has now been obliterated, leaving Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire in an impossible position as he seeks to resume negotiations, and as such any hope of stability at Stormont would appear to be doomed.
This Tory/DUP deal may be a deeply unholy alliance, but it is the only viable option for providing stable government at Westminster for the entire country. After an inconclusive general election, the Conservatives have the duty and the authority to form an administration as the party with the most MPs, and the DUP are the only party who share the Tory commitment to Brexit and are willing to prop up a minority government. Jeremy Corbyn may claim to be ready to form a Labour government, but this just highlights the extent of his delusions: even an alliance between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would still not command the support of a Commons majority. Only the Tories can lead the government based on the current parliamentary arithmetic, an inconvenient truth for the hordes of left-wingers who seem to be under the impression that Corbyn is the nation’s legitimate Prime Minister who will be in Downing Street within a matter of weeks.
Short of another election, for which there is no public appetite and which may produce another equally inconclusive result, the Tory/DUP deal is the only option to get Theresa May’s Queen’s Speech through Parliament and govern the country for the foreseeable future. Concerns about their regressive influence on social issues are legitimate enough, but in reality it is unlikely that they will have much impact in this area; the written agreement between the two parties did not mention LGBT rights or abortion, both of which the DUP implacably oppose, and there is no prospect of Arlene Foster being in a position where she can call on the government to tighten abortion laws or abolish same-sex marriage. After all, even Nick Clegg from the position of Deputy Prime Minister in a formal coalition government was unable to implement key Liberal Democrat priorities such as voting reform or the abolition of Trident, and so the DUP’s much weaker position in this government will significantly limit their influence over policy. This may be far from an ideal situation, but it is in the interests of our nation that this deal works and lasts for as long as possible within this Parliament.