“What the hell is going on in the UK?” I hear you cry. “Didn’t you just have an election? I’m sure things are progressing in a calm and civilised way, over tea and cucumber sandwiches, right?” Uh, not so much. It’s all got a bit complicated. But fear not, Pajibans. I’ll do my best to explain it, in an entirely serious, neutral and non-sarcastic fashion.
To say it’s been a bit chaotic would be an understatement. After Theresa May gambled away her majority in hopes of getting a bigger one, she was left in a tricky position. To get anything passed in the House of Commons, she’d need more votes, but very few parties would be willing to work with the Tories. The first test of a new government is passing the Queen’s speech; this is where the Queen is given a speech to read (funnily enough) outlining what the government intends to do, and then the house votes on whether they support it or not. May was left in the position where she could have failed this first hurdle. If the Queen’s speech is not passed, the Opposition are invited to form their own government and put their own Queen’s speech in. (More info on that here.) There’s a whole shindig and a man called Black Rod, but that’s just how we roll.
Looking for friends, May has been trying to strike a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, as the additional 10 votes from them would give her enough potential votes to get a majority. But this was — and still is — fraught with danger, politically speaking.
The first problem is ideology. The DUP are conservative and right-wing so, on the surface, they have common ground with the Tories. But they are further along that spectrum. They do not support gay marriage; they see homosexuality as worse than paedophilia. They are Creationists. They are anti-abortion; Northern Ireland’s draconian regulations on abortion are the sort of thing that Republican pro-lifers might dream about. An alliance with the DUP worried some of the more moderate Tory MPs. There were even rumblings of potential rebellion from the Scottish Tories. There are 12 of them. By gaining 10, she risked losing 12. Now I’m not a mathematician, but even I can see that might have been self-defeating.
The second problem is favouritism. Peace in Northern Ireland was not easily gained, to say the least. Those tensions are still high; The Troubles have not been forgotten. The Good Friday Agreement relies on Westminster being a neutral guarantor of power-sharing at Stormont. Buddying up with one of the sides for one’s own political convenience is not reassuring. Sinn Fein were deeply troubled by this partnership, which is perhaps why it is a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement rather than a formal coalition. Lord Hain’s piece on this for The Guardian is well worth a read for more information on this.
If that wasn’t enough, here’s some irony for you. In 2015, the Tories passed a bill that would prevent MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from also having a say in England-specific issues at Westminster. This was probably a move to prevent a minority Labour government ever being propped up by the SNP in a progressive coalition. We know that a coalition would have been off-brand for the Tories, what with all their ‘coalition of chaos’ chanting. But it is interesting that that same ruling might work against them now.
Those things — conflicting ideologies, disrupting the peace process and breaking your own rules — must be only little problems, just small fry. Because the agreement has been struck. And it came with a hefty price tag. The Tories have just shelled out at least one billion pounds in extra funding for Northern Ireland over the next 2 years, in exchange for their support on financial matters and no-confidence votes. That’s £100 million per DUP vote.
I’m sure that this is great for Northern Ireland’s infrastructure and public services but, in all honesty, I’m disgusted. How can they justify this in any possible way other than the most desperate need for power? There are a couple of ways to look at this. The first is that the support of the smaller party was encouraged by a deal sweetened with lots of money. There’s a word for that. The second is that, sensing vulnerability, the smaller party exploited the need of the larger party and demanded the money in exchange for their support. There’s a word for that, too. I’m struggling to see a third way. If the money given were simply in recognition that public services were underfunded, that would be different. Look outside, Prime Minister. They’ve been cut to the bone already, across the whole of the United Kingdom. Was there an extra £1 billion lying around in the treasury? Is it coming from further cuts to schools, hospitals and emergency services across the rest of the UK? Where’s the extra money for Scotland, Wales and England? Do those 10 DUP votes matter so much more than the 318 that you already have?
If schools in England were given same proportion of extra funding as NI announcement, heads would receive over £550 million. Wales: £31m. pic.twitter.com/vl76kjiVXs— NUT (@NUTonline) June 27, 2017
Perhaps much of this mess comes down to a widespread denial about the two-party system. Guess what? We don’t really have one any more. We need to look at how coalitions work in other countries, where they are the norm and they are not chaotic — they are pragmatic.
In order to make the passing of the Queen’s speech more likely, a lot of the wish-list in the manifesto had to go. Grammar schools, the return of fox-hunting, the dementia tax — all of those pet Tory projects had to be binned because no-one else would vote for them. Even Brexit has had to be toned down. Good. It’s embarrassing for Theresa May, but concessions like this don’t really constitute a failure; they are part of grown up politics.
Our European neighbours have to do this all the time. What it means is that parties have to work together in a sensible way to find common ground and make the best decisions that they can. It steers away from the extremes; policies need to be moderate enough to be approved by different parties. Compromises are made, rather than hostages taken or suitcases full of money passed under the table. People talk to each other.
Isn’t that what everyone needs right now? To work together instead of shouting over each other? If it is to happen across the country, it needs to play out in microcosm in our governments. It’s not sexy, or fun, or massively inspiring, but it’s a sensible, calming and peaceful measure.
Do you know what isn’t a great message to send to your people? That when you are under threat, you should bribe some zealots to be your allies, no matter what the risk might be, no matter who it might harm, no matter if it threatens 20 years of peace. Or conversely, that you should allow yourself to be extorted by said zealots in order to cling on to an illusion of power.
It was stupid to have an election between invoking Article 50 and the start of the negotiating process. That makes us look like even bigger numpties than we already are. Do you know what would look more sensible, dare I say, stronger and more stable? If we sent a cross-party group to represent the UK at the negotiation. Brexit is huge; it transcends party politics. Whoever negotiates it will take the blame and/or the credit, and it would be infinitely more sensible if blame and credit were shared.
I know that this will never happen. The other parties want to sit back and watch the Tories destroy themselves. The Tories want to represent themselves as the tough voice of the people. But this is politically irresponsible. There were Leavers and Remainers across the political spectrum, so there isn’t necessarily a direct correlation between party and ideas about the EU, unless we’re talking about UKIP, and let’s avoid doing that as much as possible. And if you can’t get anyone outside your own party to agree on some terms for Brexit, how the hell are you going to convince 27 EU member states?
Is this deal with the DUP meant to be a great sign of the Tories’ negotiating skills? If they are willing to hand over £1 billion for 10 votes, what on earth are they going to need to part with in order to make Brexit happen the way they want? Let’s hope they find one of those magic money trees.