Sunday 22 September 2019

May plans her new government with help of unionist 'friends'

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: PA
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: PA

Christopher Hope

British Prime Minister Theresa May said she would form a new government with help from her unionist "friends" after an election debacle in which she unexpectedly lost her majority.

The Conservatives and the DUP are set to agree a written "programme for government", as the party's two most senior Westminster leaders fly to London to hammer out a deal.

The shock UK election result thrust the DUP into the role of kingmaker, with its 10 seats giving Mrs May a fragile but workable partnership.

While votes were still being counted, one of its MPs, Jeffrey Donaldson, called it "perfect territory" for the party, eyeing up a "very, very strong negotiating position".

He suggested the DUP could support the government on a vote-by-vote basis, meaning a so-called 'confidence and supply' arrangement was more likely than a formal coalition.

Westminster insiders said the two parties had enjoyed a "hand in glove" relationship for the two years following the narrow Conservative majority delivered by the 2015 election. That relationship was strengthened when the DUP backed the government in the vote to trigger Brexit in March.

One source said Mr Donaldson had "basically been in the boardroom of the government for the past two years. When Article 50 was passed - Tory whips held a Champagne party in the Whips' Office and Jeffrey was toasted by the [Conservative chief whip] Gavin Williamson."

As the dust settled on the election, Mrs May made the first public approach, reaching out to the DUP in a speech on the steps of Number 10. She said: "We will continue to work with our friends and allies in the Democratic Unionist Party in particular...  our two parties have enjoyed a strong relationship over many years, and this gives me the confidence to believe that we will be able to work together in the interests of the whole United Kingdom."

Read More: Thousands google 'DUP' as Brits scramble to get a handle on the UK's new kingmakers

Hours later, DUP leader Arlene Foster confirmed talks will begin with Mrs May on the formation of a government. She said: "The prime minister has spoken with me this morning and we will enter discussions with the Conservatives to explore how it may be possible to bring stability to our nation at this time of great challenge."

But the DUP indicated that no deal was done, even though Ms May has asked Queen Elizabeth for permission to form a government.

It is understood the two parties are considering a written programme to set out the policies they agree on. Another possibility is a 'pick-and-mix' arrangement where the DUP and the Tories co-operate on a law-by-law basis. However, a formal coalition deal - where DUP MPs take Cabinet roles -was described by a No 10 source as "very unlikely".

There are yet fears that the DUP's hard line on gay marriage and abortion rights could be a stumbling block.

Both the Conservatives and the DUP support Brexit with a Common Travel Area to cover the Border in Ireland.

Mrs Foster said: "No one wants to see a hard Brexit, what we want to see is a workable plan to leave the European Union... we need to do it in a way that respects the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland, and, of course, our shared history and geography with the Republic of Ireland."

But a deal between the DUP and the Conservatives would risk destabilising the delicate political balance in Northern Ireland and could significantly complicate talks due to start next week to restore the power-sharing agreement.

Read More: Turmoil in Tories over DUP link-up

"It has made the possibility of successful talks more remote," said Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party. "There is now no credibility for the Tory government to be an independent chair, putting the entire process in real danger of collapsing."

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin won seven seats, although it does not take up its seats in Westminster. The party described its best ever result in a UK election as a further boost to the party's ultimate goal of an united Ireland.

"One thing we can say for certainty, there is going to be a referendum on Irish unity," said party president Gerry Adams.

The SDLP lost all three of its seats in a humiliating defeat which has sparked predictions of an existential crisis in its ranks.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section