Ian Swanson: Theresa May struggling as DUP holds all the aces

The DUP was founded by hardliner the Rev Dr Ian Paisley. Picture: AP
The DUP was founded by hardliner the Rev Dr Ian Paisley. Picture: AP
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A GRUBBY deal, an outrageous bung, cash for votes, the worst kind of pork-barrel politics – Theresa May’s deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party was greeted with some colourful language when it was first announced.

Despite its ongoing austerity policies, the UK Government managed to find £1 billion of new spending for the province in return for the support of the DUP’s ten MPs on key issues – crucial for the Tories as they try to stay in power in the hung parliament at Westminster.

Announcing the deal in Downing Street, DUP leader Arlene Foster had the satisfaction of the woman in charge of the thumbscrews as she declared: “The Government has recognised the case for higher funding in Northern Ireland.”

And less than ten days in, there are already vivid illustrations of just how precarious the Government’s position is.

Mrs May had to cut short a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel to return for the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire left the power-sharing talks in Belfast early to get back, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson flew back from Cyprus to take part in the vote and another Tory MP had to miss his mother-in-law’s funeral.

It was also ironic that to avoid defeat the Government had to agree to demands from Labour’s Stella Creasy that women from Northern Ireland should no longer have to pay for abortions carried out in England – a move the ultra-conservative DUP has resisted for years.

Plenty more tight votes, cancelled visits, late-night divisions and unexpected concessions lie ahead in the next five years if the Tories manage to hang on. Governments without an overall majority are constantly at risk from ambush by the opposition and rebellion by their own backbenchers.

And the deal Mrs May has done with the DUP has problems of its own. The party founded by the Rev Dr Ian Paisley represents a brand of social conservatism no longer accepted in the rest of the UK. Its outright opposition to same-sex marriage, for example, is clearly an embarrassment to the Tories. The Government’s reliance on the DUP compromises its impartiality in the power-sharing talks in Northern Ireland.

And, of course, the extra cash now to be poured into one devolved part of the UK provokes inevitable discontent in the others. The Barnett formula for the distribution of funding throughout the UK does not apply because it only ensures fair allocations to the devolved areas in relation to English spending. Nevertheless Scotland and Wales have reason to complain about such a large sum going to the Belfast government while those in Edinburgh and Cardiff are expected to accept austerity.

The “bung” to Northern Ireland has also fed discontent about tight budgets in other areas. Tory backbencher Heidi Allen said she could “barely put into words my anger” at the DUP deal and suggested it must mean funding will be urgently reviewed for public sector wages, schools, social care and Universal Credit across the UK.

And £1bn is not the end of it. The deal allows the DUP to come back for more in the future. And with years of negotiating experience behind it, it will no doubt make the most of that.

Mrs May will soon discover clinging to power is a costly business.