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This deal with the DUP is just another sign of the Tory disregard for women's rights

Even setting aside questions about abortion, modern Conservatism remains firmly in favour of the exploitation of female bodies.

Last year, when the race to Number 10 was down to Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, leading Tories wasted no time in flaunting the party’s feminist credentials.

“We will have a woman Prime Minister,” declared Iain Duncan Smith. “The Conservative Party, yet again, leading the way on this.” The situation, tweeted Boris Johnson, proved his party to be “the most progressive in Britain”.

Such claims were never particularly convincing at the time. Anyone with a genuine interest in how British politics treats women already knew the score. The Conservatives do loophole women: individuals who rise the top, but only on condition that they leave others behind. Labour do actual feminists, women who see female liberation in collective rather than individualistic terms, but would rather not have one such creature leading the party.

Neither approach is ideal (but as each of us knows, a woman can’t have it all). Nevertheless, if we were to revisit last summer’s ridiculous “who’s the most feminist” face-off, it’s pretty clear the Tories would have to admit defeat. No party in the process of making a deal with their “friends and allies in the Democratic Unionist Party” could possibly claim to be “the most progressive in Britain”.

As Suzanne Moore writes in the Guardian, Theresa May is “so desperate to stay in power that she and her party will cobble together a deal with those who would deny women basic reproductive rights”. The DUP has consistently opposed the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, forcing women either to cross the channel for abortions they must fund themselves, risk prosecution for procuring abortion pills, or to carry pregnancies to term even if their foetus has no hope of survival.

That Northern Irish women have endured this for decades has masked its barbarity to those on the outside. One commentator has claimed that “the DUP (and Sinn Feinn) have been running NI for years now without it being The Handmaid's Tale”. Well, no. They haven’t demanded the compulsory wearing of the red dresses just yet. Given their impeccable record on treating female human beings as vessels, one could say they don’t really need to.

It is unlikely, for the time being at least, that women in the rest of the UK will have to face the same restrictions on their reproductive freedoms. From a feminist perspective, this is not the problem with the Tories reaching an agreement with the DUP. When Conservative backbencher Owen Paterson told the Today programme that “you might get a debate, I suppose, on further reduction of abortion times as medical science advances”, he was not speaking from a position of authority. The DUP are unlikely to make such an issue a priority in any future agreement.

Bu what this does do is make it even more difficult for any future pressure to be applied to grant women in Northern Ireland the same limited choices as women elsewhere. The unhappy compromise granted to those in England, Scotland and Wales – whereby abortion remains a criminal act, albeit one permitted under certain circumstances – may still hold, while for Northern Irish women, all hope of change recedes. Standing still will be repackaged as progress. This is unacceptable, if not particularly surprising.

Today’s Tory Party may not wish to appear openly anti-feminist. Any vote on abortion would be a free vote, with the implication that it is a complex question of personal religion, philosophy, understandings of medical progress etc, and not the rather simple one of “do you think pregnant women are human or not?”

Nevertheless, even if one sets aside questions of reproductive choice, modern Conservatism remains firmly in favour of the exploitation of female bodies. No Tory politician will dare admit it in so many words, but low-and unpaid female labour remains essential to their concept of freedom for everyone else. This is why austerity has hit women the hardest. It is natural and necessary for human beings to depend on one another; in order for the Tory vision of self-sufficiency and independence to maintain any credibility, female reproductive and domestic work must be rendered invisible. The DUP may take this a step further than the Conservatives, but the underlying principles remain the same.

It is less than a year since the Telegraph asked “Is Theresa May Britain’s most feminist Prime Minister ever?” No one would ask it now (not that anyone is necessarily deserving of such a title; “least misogynist” might be a more reasonable point at which to start).

Even so, what is happening now does not teach us anything new about the Conservatives and their attitude towards women’s rights. Of course they’d sell us out, and they’d get a woman to do it too. It’s not a so much a compromise as an article of faith.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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