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22 June 2017

The Conservatives’ problems won’t end once a DUP deal is reached

Theresa May's handling of the talks has left a considerable dent in the Tory reputation for competence.

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May’s fascinating scale model of Tony Blair’s premiership – minus the war, the landslides and the lasting social change – continues. On 18 April she was as popular as Blair in 1994. She’s now more unpopular (-40) than Blair was when he stepped down in 2007, though not quite below his 2006 nadir (-44%).

Towards the end, cartoonists frequently portrayed Labour’s last election-winner as a zombie. Now May gets that dubious honour too on the cover of this week’s NS – “The Zombie PM” is our cover story. (In all reputable stores now. Subscribers get it cheaper.)

Other than Brexit, where as George notes, as far as Brexit goes, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that the Conservatives still had a comfortable majority, the Queen’s Speech was notable for what wasn’t in it as much as what was. The two-year gap before another one is partly about the complexity of Brexit, but partly, too, about avoiding moments of maximum danger as far as the government’s parliamentary position goes.

The government’s position will improve once that accord with the DUP is reached, which is expected sooner rather than later. Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s Chief Whip, has talked about how “a change in attitude” on the Conservative side has put the talks back on track.

May made life more difficult for herself by publicly announcing she would govern with the support of the DUP. As John Major said, announcing that the Conservatives had both more votes and seats than anyone else and inviting the opposition to come and have a go would have still meant a deal with the DUP, but one conducted in private and without exposing the Conservative brand to contamination among liberal Britons thanks to the DUP’s more traditional flavour of conservatism.

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She also made the third biggest mistake you can make, after starting a land war in Russia or betting against a Sicilian when death is on the line, which is to negotiate with the DUP in newsprint.

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All of which means that, deal or no deal, the Conservatives will have to grapple with three entirely self-inflicted problems. The first is the unease that much of the DUP platform provokes in England, Scotland and Wales and what that will reinforce about the Tory party. The second is that it has left a considerable dent in the Tory reputation for competence. The third is that the DUP now know that when it comes to negotiations, they’re a lot better at it than the Conservatives on the other side of the table.

All three of those problems will continue to make life miserable for the Zombie PM and whoever her successor ends up being.