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There’s something everyone has missed about the DUP and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act

The Unionist party has more scope to bully the Conservatives thanks to the 2011 law.

By Stephen Bush

How much leverage do the Democratic Unionist Party have over the Conservatives?

The traditional conservative party that is Northern Ireland’s largest is negotiating an arrangement with the Tories to keep them in office, after Theresa May fell short of a majority in the election last week.

There’s one reading that says that the DUP have precious little leverage. Their antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn due to his historical meetings with the IRA during the 1980s means that, unlike with previous Labour leaders, they cannot do a deal with Labour. Nor can they go back to their voters having put Corbyn in Downing Street.

So they’re stuffed, right? Whatever the Conservatives put on the table, they have to accept. Well, not really.

The DUP have already agreed in principle to a “confidence and supply” deal – that is, they will support the government on budget votes and votes of confidence – but the details are still to be hammered out.

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But what is being missed are the consequences of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011, and the increased leverage it gives to the DUP.  Under the act, a parliament runs for five years unless there is a two-thirds majority for an early election or the government loses a vote of no confidence and no-one is able to form a new government within 14 days.

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The really important thing about that is it significantly reduces the scope of what “confidence and supply” means. When Labour ran a minority government for five years from 1974 to 1979, they were both more vulnerable (they could have fallen almost at any time) and more powerful (as they could turn difficult votes into “back me or sack me” issues). And it was assumed that finance bills and Queen’s Speeches were confidence issues.

Thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, “confidence votes” have been explicitly drawn to exclude votes on the Budget or the Queen’s Speech. A government only falls if it loses a vote of no confidence. It no longer falls if it loses a major vote, a Budget vote or even the Queen’s Speech.

This obviously increases the leverage of the DUP – and Labour’s ability to harry the government day-to-day. The DUP can hold the government up, by backing them in confidence votes. But they can also let them down by deserting them on essentially everything else to secure bigger concessions from the Conservative Party.

Far from being trapped by the Conservatives, the DUP have more leverage over them than a minor party has ever enjoyed in a hung parliament before.