Kingmakers: could the DUP decide the UK’s next prime minister?

Peter Robinson and the Democratic Unionist Party are being wooed by David Cameron’s Conseratives and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party ahead of May’s UK general election

Potential partners: Peter Robinson with David Cameron in the Downing Street garden (bottom right) and with Ed Miliband in Belfast (bottom left); David Cameron formed his current coalition with Nick Clegg (top left); Robinson will be under pressure to deliver short-term gains to party colleagues frightened of Traditional Unionist Voice, the party of Jim Allister (top right). Photographs: Will Oliver/AFP/Getty, Charles McQuillan/Getty, Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty and Paul Faith/PA Wire

Potential partners: Peter Robinson with David Cameron in the Downing Street garden (bottom right) and with Ed Miliband in Belfast (bottom left); David Cameron formed his current coalition with Nick Clegg (top left); Robinson will be under pressure to deliver short-term gains to party colleagues frightened of Traditional Unionist Voice, the party of Jim Allister (top right). Photographs: Will Oliver/AFP/Getty, Charles McQuillan/Getty, Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty and Paul Faith/PA Wire

 

Gregory Campbell, the Democratic Unionist Party MP for East Derry – or East Londonderry, as he would prefer – says he will be glad when Friday, May 8th, rolls around, the morning after the UK general election.

“I am looking forward . . . to actually opening doors myself rather than having them opened for me all the time,” he says, jokingly, referring to the cosseting that DUP MPs are receiving from their Conservative and Labour colleagues at Westminster.

That’s because the DUP could be crucial to the formation of the next UK government, more likely for David Cameron’s party but also, potentially, for Ed Miliband’s.

The cosseting began early. Last May Cameron invited the DUP’s eight MPs to the Rose Garden at 10 Downing Street for early-evening summer drinks, including a generous selection of nonalcoholic ones for the teetotallers.

The garden receptions – especially ones where Cameron’s children gambol among the guests – are a particular mark of being in favour in the Whitehall hierarchy.

Word leaked quickly. Such gatherings rarely stay private for long in Westminster, but the DUP was particularly pleased for word to get out, relishing the potential role it could play as kingmaker. “They are the most courted maiden in the village,” says a Labour MP.

There is a general acceptance that neither the Conservatives nor Labour will win a majority on May 7th; only some form of crisis during the height of the campaign, in April, is considered to have the potential to drive voters back to casting their ballots in the traditional way, for one of the two main Westminster parties.

Since May last year the Democratic Unionists have indicated a willingness to offer conditional support to the Conservatives – not as a part of a coalition government but on a so-called confidence and supply basis: it would back a minority government on confidence votes and on budgetary votes in return for an opening list of concessions – but everything else would be up for negotiation later on.

Then last month the DUP’s leader, Peter Robinson, made signals to Labour also. During Ed Miliband’s visit to Belfast Robinson repeatedly and warmly praised the party in a speech at a dinner. “He praised Labour for all that it had done on the peace process during its time in office – completely ignoring the fact that the DUP had opposed nearly everything that it had done,” says an Irish diplomat.

The Conservatives go into the election with 302 MPs, minus the recently suspended Malcolm Rifkind, who will not be running again in Kensington and Chelsea – although the seat should stay safely within the party fold.

A majority in the 650-seat House of Commons can be secured with 322 seats. (The arithmetic excludes the speaker and two deputy speakers and assumes that Sinn Féin will win the same number of seats as in 2010 but continue its abstentionist policy.)

The DUP will have its strongest hand to play if the Conservatives come close to a majority – although the swings needed to bring Cameron close to victory could also be enough to take him over the line.

It’s more likely that the Conservatives will fall short of that – and if they end up with, say, 290 or more seats they will need both Nick Clegg’s badly weakened Liberal Democrats and the DUP to get them over the line, or to get them close enough to it to survive for a time as a minority government.

Most in Westminster believe that a straight Conservative-DUP deal, were it enough to create a government, could be done quickly. Extra money for Stormont, some places on high-profile House of Commons committees and other patronage should suffice.

The DUP has a long memory, however, particularly about the central involvement in the Conservatives’ Northern Ireland policy, over two decades, of Jonathan Caine, who is now special adviser to Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary.

“He was seen as the architect of the make-up with the Ulster Unionists in the 1990s. They don’t forget stuff like that. They see Villiers as highly ineffectual, though also as one who has upped her game in recent times,” says a Westminster source.

Ill-fated alliance

That arrangement has since died, but for Campbell it highlights the dangers for any political organisation of “hitching its wagon to one party for one term and then possibly being completely isolated if they were replaced as the government of the day”.

Evidence of the DUP’s potential importance at Westminster is plentiful: the decision to sign off on lower corporation tax, for example, is not unrelated to the Conservatives’ recognition that they may need the DUP after May 7th.

A decision to bow to the persistent demands of the Commons’ Northern Ireland affairs committee to interview former Northern Ireland Office officials about the on-the-runs letters is seen as a further signal.

But few in the DUP are positive about Cameron. Most view him as arrogant and as a representative of metropolitan social values that they disdain. “They see him and his type of Tory as toffs, who are not interested in NI. And they are annoyed about Tories running candidates: the local Conservative branches in NI are the ones who are the most critical of the DUP, far ahead even of Sinn Féin,” says one source.

Few in the Conservatives have much knowledge of or interest in the peace process bar a general benign desire that nothing be done to upset the progress of the past two decades. None, however, seems to see an alliance with the DUP as a problem.

“I can’t see any situation where David Cameron would do a deal with the DUP that would impact on the principles of the Good Friday agreement,” says one Conservative backbencher, reflecting the views of many others.

The Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin shares a similar confidence, although there is plenty of room for difficulties in the case of increased DUP influence.

Robinson must know that any tampering with the hard-won Christmas agreement at Stormont could damage the stability that has been achieved. Nevertheless, he will be under pressure to deliver visible short-term gains to deal with party colleagues who are influenced by, or frightened of, Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice party.

Meanwhile, senior DUP figures, such as Campbell, Ian Paisley and Nigel Dodds, are unconcerned about being viewed as political and, especially, social dinosaurs in some English circles.

“I know there can be a patronising and haughty and dismissive attitude taken, but I think a bit more analysis and a bit more understanding reveals, actually, a much wider consensus on these views right across the communities in NI,” says Dodds.

Describing the DUP as politically and socially conservative, Jeffrey Donaldson, the MP for Lagan Valley, says: “There are many people in Labour and Conservative parties who share our views; they are not unique to the DUP. And there are many Labour and Conservative MPs who voted against gay marriage and who vote the same way as the DUP on issues such as abortion. These are matters of conscience and always have been in parliament.”

Ian Paisley, who represents North Antrim, has got into trouble for describing homosexuality as an abomination, although in recent years he has been careful with his choice of language. He knows that if the DUP’s parliamentary votes are pivotal then some commentators and politicians will resurrect his and Iris Robinson’s views on homosexuality to try to reinforce the depiction of the Democratic Unionists as political rednecks.

The DUP’s bottom line is clear, nevertheless. It will not seek to change the UK Abortion Act of 1967 (which does not apply to Northern Ireland), or reverse the same-sex marriage laws (which, again, do not apply to Northern Irleand), as long as Westminster does not pressure Stormont to follow them.

For Conservatives such issues will little delay matters. “These issues have always been matters for conscience votes. I can’t see any situation where we would interfere with them if they didn’t interfere on this side,” says a Conservative backbencher.

But the situation becomes more complicated if a third partner is required. The idea of a deal of any form with the DUP horrifies one Liberal Democrat. “A Conservative-Liberal-DUP alliance wouldn’t have a prayer. The DUP is the antithesis of liberalism. I couldn’t see that working.”

If some in Dublin believe that pressures over the Good Friday agreement could be managed, there is deep concern that a stronger role for the DUP – even if one step removed from the British cabinet – could further weaken the UK’s place in the European Union. The DUP is overwhelmingly Eurosceptic. If its numbers give it influence with the Conservative Party then it will use that to support Conservatives who want not just a renegotiation of the UK’s role in Europe but an exit from the EU.

Sammy Wilson, the East Antrim MP and former minister for finance, is confident that the UK would be better off quitting Europe. “I think the European project is flawed in so far as it tries to concentrate power at the centre,” he says .

Ideally, however, the DUP wants to be able to play both sides. Last monthRobinson told Miliband during a Stormont Castle reception: “I hope that both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party have a good election but not a great election.”

If the Conservatives’ wooing of the DUP has attracted more headlines, Labour’s relationship-building began earlier and has gone deeper.

The parties agreed to resist cuts to firefighters’ pensions in negotiations that built trust between whips, and they co-operated during the 2013 vote that stopped Cameron bombing Syria.

The Labour leadership and the DUP fundamentally disagree about the EU and social issues, such as same-sex marriage, but the latter could be resolved by a “hear no evil, see no evil” agreement. On an individual basis, many DUP MPs represent similar constituencies to those held by Labour.

In truth, however, neither the Conservatives nor Labour wants to end up needing to pick up the telephone to Peter Robinson on May 8th. “They clearly are a very disunited party. Jeffrey, Sammy and Ian are political sole traders,” says one London-based observer. But they might not have any choice.

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