How the BBC gave the next Tory leader an even bigger DUP headache

The governments sometime confidence and supply partners will want to see means-testing for over-75s TV licences reversed.

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One of the trickiest questions contenders for the Conservative leadership must answer is how they intend to win back the support of the government's sometime confidence and supply partners, the DUP. Without their 10 votes, the next prime minister will have no majority — as Theresa May discovered to her cost.

Most of the candidates argue that the answer is gutting the Brexit withdrawal agreement of the Irish backstop, or at least time-limiting it. Giving Stormont a veto over any future regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is another firm favourite. Delivering on any one of those pledges will be difficult, to say the least. And thanks to the BBC, the DUP-shaped headache that will afflict any new leader has just got bigger.

The corporation's decision to means-test free TV licences for the over-75s from 2020 — a George Osborne manifesto pledge — leaves Theresa May's successor in a tricky position. 

The DUP, in keeping with its statist instincts on welfare, has campaigned against the change and has urged the government to shoulder the cost. Their objections — laid out by South Belfast MP Emma Little-Pengelly here — are threefold. They argue that the BBC should not be dictating or implementing social policy, and that older people are caught in the crossfire of a row about the future of BBC funding. Most importantly, they contend that it sets a precedent that undermines the universality of pension-age benefits. 

Arlene Foster’s MPs have never been afraid to take the fight to the government on that latter point. The triple-lock and winter fuel allowance were only maintained as government policy as a result of the party's confidence and supply arrangement — which is up for review at the end of this parliamentary session. Unsurprisingly, there is some dismay at today's decision. “Crazy” is how one senior DUP MP puts it. “It's a terrible decision,” is the verdict of another. “It must be reversed.”

If the next Conservative leader is serious about reviving the confidence and supply agreement, they might find making such an expensive U-turn impossible to avoid.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.