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No, Theresa May, the DUP will not join a formal coalition

The unionists have no interest in reducing their own leverage over a doomed prime minister.

Theresa May, according to ITV News' Robert Peston, has dispatched her chief whip, Gavin Williamson, to Belfast in the hope of negotiating a formal coalition with the DUP. Of all her rash and shortsighted moves on Northern Ireland, this is by some distance the most ridiculous.

Why? Because, as the DUP themselves have made abundantly and repeatedly clear, they have no interest in entering into a formal, full-blown coalition. Nigel Dodds said so in 2015, when the six months before the election were dominated by talk of how David Cameron and Ed Miliband would cobble together a commons majority.

I am reliably told the same is true now. Entering into a formal coalition would reduce the party's substantial leverage over the government. They have no interest in doing so. The eight DUP MPs in the last parliament were very useful indeed to a government hobbled by a slim majority. The 10 in this one are essential to its slim chances of surviving. While some codified deal is possible, it is unlikely to be a coalition as popularly understood. 

Nor do they want to be shackled formally to a prime minister who, as Arlene Foster is concerned, is more or less finished. The DUP leader said yesterday that it would be "difficult" for May to survive such a disappointing election result. As the best-practiced bargain drivers in the commons, her party will not want to be contractually obliged to act as a doomed May's life support machine. If they wouldn't do it for Cameron, they certainly wouldn't do it for his irredeemably tarnished successor.

Then there are the politics of Northern Ireland itself. Mainland commentators have seemed to suggest with various degrees of sincerity – and, indeed, familiarity with objective reality – that the DUP would be willing to tear up Northern Ireland's post-Troubles settlement for the sake of some pork barrel spending and, even more implausibly, a state attack on women's and LGBT rights across the UK. (The 1967 Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland, and the DUP oppose its extension to the province, as is the case with equal marriage legislation). 

This, to put it plainly, is nonsense. While the DUP's approach to the devolved institutions has often left much to be desired, there is no reason to disbelieve its politicians when they say they would like to see a devolved executive restored, even if their terms for restoration are unacceptable to Sinn Fein.

Despite the sectarian posturing that is inherent to Northern Irish politics, there is, in 2017, one fundamental point of consensus. And that, in the words of one DUP MP, is that the Troubles – and the long years of direct rule – were "crap". The unionists want a good deal but not at any cost. Nobody has any interest in Northern Ireland becoming an ungovernable basket case again (not least the parties that get to run it), which is what May risks by attempting to broker a deal with the DUP which goes way beyond the backroom schmoozing of the last parliament.

Nor does the DUP, which has played its hand well in the months following the collapse of the executive, want to look in any way culpable for anything that further exacerbates the impasse. That is why, unlike the Prime Minister, they have been very careful indeed not to commit publicly to anything specific. And that is why Theresa May is wasting her time seeking a formal coalition.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.