Without the DUP, Theresa May can achieve nothing

The unionists swung the vote on Leveson 2 in favour of the government, and the government needs to fight for their backing to pass any domestic policy whatsoever.

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It is easy to forget, save for the occasional spiky parliamentary question or wobble over Brexit and the Irish border, that Theresa May depends on the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party for her survival.

Given the government’s lack of any real legislative agenda beyond the areas covered by the terms of the party’s confidence and supply deal with the Tories – confidence motions, Queen’s speeches, the budget, finance bills and legislation relating to Brexit and national security – that might be expected.

Two key events in parliament this week, however, have proved that they are much more than a lender of last resort for May’s majority government and in fact hold the whip hand over the entirety of its domestic agenda.

The first, and most prominent, was the government defeat of Ed Miliband’s bid to force it to hold the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry. The government won the division on Miliband’s amendment by a slender margin of 304 votes to 295. The nine votes separating the ayes and the noes? All DUP votes.

Present that result as a fait accompli and it’s easy to see how the party might be taken for granted by observers as permanent insulation for the Tories, a dependable presence in whichever lobby they happen to be walking through.

Not so: there was real doubt on the morning of the vote over which way the unionists would go. It took a meeting with the minister responsible, Matt Hancock, to win them round. And despite the £1bn they secured as part of their confidence and supply deal, there was an additional price for the government: a new review into press standards in Northern Ireland.

Without tangible incentives from the government, the DUP has no obligation to back anything above and beyond the confines of the confidence and supply agreement. Much of the government’s energy is expended keeping them happy, and being seen to do so.

This need was demonstrated at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, when May condemned the current system which sees Troubles veterans are prosecuted for historical cases “patently unfair”, and even went as far as to make the questionable claim (debunked by the BBC last year) that only former armed service and security personnel are being investigated.

The DUP are not the only people aggrieved by this issue, which is important to plenty of Conservatives too. The government largely walked in lockstep with them on this issue in the last parliament. But the strength of the prime minister’s unambiguous condemnation was telling: the government must be seen to be batting for them.

Doing so on knotty, politically sensitive issues such as this will come at a price. In this case, it might end up being a statute of limitations for all UK armed forces personnel anywhere in the world (the DUP object to one for British soldiers in Northern Ireland alone on the grounds that it could lead to an equivalent mechanism for republican terrorists).

Even when the government and DUP’s fundamental priorities are aligned, on issues such as this, it is still likely that they will have to expend more political energy and go further than they would have otherwise on issues that would not have otherwise been priorities to maintain their ability to do anything beyond Europe.

Their veto over the government's Brexit policy exacerbates the bind. Without earning the goodwill of the unionists on other issues, Brexit set-pieces get even stickier. 

With ministers vying for succession – and the tacit endorsement of the unionists in any leadership race – May will feel the pressure to placate the DUP from inside government, too. But the pressure most keenly felt will be the pressing need to do something, anything, other than Brexit.

Without the DUP, that will prove very difficult, if not impossible – and they are using that fact to their very visible advantage.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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