The message to be taken from today’s Downing Street proceedings is a simple one: England, you wanted Brexit so you can pay for it. That, in essence, is the meaning of the confidence and supply agreement brokered between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party.
That the DUP favoured Brexit too is of no account and nothing more than a cute irony. Nobody gets between an Irish politician and their pork. ’Twas ever thus, north and south of the border, and ’twill ever be thus. This is the word of the book, you know.
Enough too, please, of pretending to be shocked by the shocking discovery that politics is a shockingly transactional business.
Besides, the sums involved are almost laughably small. The DUP have received a promise of an extra £1 billion for Northern Ireland over the next two years. To put that into some context, Her Majesty’s government spent more than £770 billion in the last financial year. If the extra money for Northern Ireland is not a rounding error it is not very much more than a rounding error. Or, to put it in other terms, it’s like planning to spend £100 and then having your mate ask if you could actually add ten pence to your planned expenditure. As hookers go, the DUP are cheap dates.
But this, if we are interested in being honest, is their traditional role. What else do you think they are there for? The whole point – well, much of the point anyway – of being a Unionist from Northern Ireland at Westminster is that you exist as a kind of insurance policy for governments in need. You sit there, doing very little, for years until the moment comes at which you can present the price tag for your support.
John Major experienced this and so, in 2008, did Gordon Brown when he promised an extra £1.2 billion for Northern Ireland in return for the DUP’s support on extending recharge detention for terrorists to 42 days. David Davis, then serving as shadow home secretary, complained that ‘We won the argument, the government bought the votes.’ Well, again, that’s what they’re there for. Now it is Theresa May’s turn to pay the Orange price.
I don’t imagine today’s deal will help the prime minister very much and it may also be one purchased at too great a price. Not because of the money involved – trivial, as I say – but because it further reduces her already diminished reputation for plain-speaking, straight-forward, competent, government. Indeed, it reinforces the sense she is trapped, a prisoner of events, her party, and now the DUP.
That’s the way it goes, however, when you call and fail to win an election.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the realm the natives are revolting all over again. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Welsh valleys as it becomes clear, for the 40th consecutive year, that Wales is always last in the queue for treats. The Welsh hate the Barnett formula and for good reason: they lose out from it every year even though, on any needs-based basis, they should – and in a fairer world would – benefit from it. Barnett is neither fair nor needs-based, however.
And nor is it going anywhere even if today has also made it clear that it is the Schleswig-Holstein question of our time. That is, vanishingly few people at Westminster appear to understand it. This includes, remarkably, several members of the cabinet as well as, less remarkably, almost every member of the parliamentary lobby.
Barnett, in any case, is merely a convention. It exists to be wished into or out of existence as and when the government, which is to say the Treasury, sees fit. Today’s bung to the Ulstermen has been deemed to be outside Barnett, just as, for instance, spending on the London Olympics was also declared non-Barnett. There was never, ever, any prospect this money would be Barnettized (that’s a real word in Scottish politics, by the way).
Not that this has prevented an almighty stushie in Scotland. The SNP, never slow to climb the mountain of grievance, condemn this ‘grubby’ deal with the DUP and demand that Scotland should share in the grubby proceeds. There will, the nationalists warn, be consequences, albeit not of the Barnett kind. By my reckoning this is 142nd day the Union has died since 2015.
Even so, there is a recognition amongst the Scottish Tories that sending a cheque to Belfast causes certain difficulties in Edinburgh. If ten DUP MPs can chisel a billion from the Treasury, what are 13 Scotch Tory MPs worth? Already the SNP are lambasting them as the ‘Feeble Thirteen’ and suggesting that, yet again, Tory MPs will sign up to anything their London ‘bosses’ demand from them.
In response the Scottish Tories say people should calm down and wait. Their attention is being diverted to the budget. ‘We will be making absolutely sure we get heard’, one insider says. In other words, the Treasury is going to have to do something for Scotland too. Here too, it is a case of those who wanted Brexit being required to pay it.
Granted, the true cost of the deal will be greater than the billion pound subvention promised to Northern Ireland. Maintaining the pension triple-lock and the winter fuel allowance may not do much for the now-fashionable cause of intergenerational fairness but it will hardly prove unpopular with the millions of voters who will benefit from it. Indeed, if they had their way again I imagine the Tories would like to rerun the election without promising to abandon or water down their past promises to pensioners.
That’s for another day. The price of power is measured in the cost of doing business. As Theresa May is discovering, that’s often more expensive than you might have wished. Northern Ireland today, Scotland tomorrow and lord knows who else the day after that.
All very shocking, I know, and doubtless just as discreditable and even as grubby as everyone says. I for one am appalled to discover politics is happening in the palace of Westminster.
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