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20 June 2017

Here’s what Theresa May hasn’t noticed about the DUP

The party has her, and the Conservatives, over a barrel.

By Stephen Bush

The day before the Queen’s Speech, and no one is sure if Theresa May has reached any kind of agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party to get the votes she needs to get it over the line.

Are we heading back for another election? No, but it speaks to a misjudgement that much of the political class and May in particular have made about the DUP.

It’s very easy to look at the DUP, with their social conservative platform and their aggressive Unionism and assume that they’re, well, hicks from the sticks. Just bung ‘em a few quid for a Large Hadron Collider in Ballymena and on you go.

The aversion the DUP has to Jeremy Corbyn due to his historical links with the IRA also, the theory runs in London, decreases the DUP’s leverage over the Conservatives.

But there’s a reason why the DUP had such a good night on 8 June and it’s because they’re effective political operators with a good grasp of what their electorate wants. Unlike the Conservative government, they know how to negotiate.

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The important thing to remember is that the Conservatives have just one card to play against the DUP: that is, the aversion of their voters to an arrangement which allows Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. But once the Queen’s Speech is passed, that card ceases to be in play until the next Queen’s Speech or a formal vote of no confidence. Thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, what constitutes a confidence vote has been narrowly defined.

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The government can lose any number of votes – over the legislative timetable, over Brexit, over its core programme as set out in the Queen’s Speech – and it won’t fall.

(There is a lively debate about whether or not the Budget, or simply the Queen’s Speech, is a confidence issue. In either case, that confidence has been sharply limited thanks to the Act hugely increases the DUP’s leverage.)

That means that once the government is “home and dry” thanks to the passage of the Queen’s Speech, the Conservatives’ leverage over the DUP will be greatly diminished while, day-to-day and week-to-week, the DUP will have the whip hand. They will be able to hold the government up by voting with it on the Queen’s Speech and the Budget – but they will be free to let them down any time on anything else.

Theresa May is going to find the DUP a far cannier and more difficult partner than David Cameron found the Liberal Democrats.