Could the DUP scupper Boris Johnson’s plans?
More money, free TV licences for over-75s and assurances on Troubles prosecutions on the table for new ‘confidence and supply’ deal
Before he even gets to Brussels, Boris Johnson could be set for a showdown with the DUP, as he looks to renegotiate the confidence and supply arrangement that maintains his slim parliamentary majority.
The Conservatives have relied on the party’s 10 MPs to pass legislation ever since Theresa may lost her parliamentary majority in 2017.
A deal thrashed out in the days following the vote saw the DUP agree a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Tories to give it a small majority in the House of Commons.
Even with the DUP, a series of defections has cut the Tories’ working majority in Parliament to just two. It could fall even further if, as expected, the party loses a by-election in Wales next week.
This means “Johnson will need the support of the DUP even more than his predecessor did”, says The Independent.
Addressing the Commons for the first time as prime minister yesterday, Johnson thanked the DUP for “enabling the government to carry on”, by which he meant “effectively keeping his government in power”, says The Belfast Telegraph.
Speaking to the BBC, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds denied that his party had the government “over a barrel”, however, he admitted the DUP will want to see Johnson’s “plans going forward”, and reiterated that their priorities remain strengthening the union, delivering Brexit and restoring devolution in Northern Ireland - in that order.
The last confidence and supply agreement, which was due to last two years, proved hugely controversial, with the government accused of effectively bribing the DUP with a billion pounds in extra spending pledges for Northern Ireland.
While confirming that the agreement “remains”, DUP leader Arlene Foster this week said it will be up for review “over the coming weeks and will explore the policy priorities of both parties for the next parliamentary session”.
Given the tight parliamentary arithmetic, the Financial Times says it “gives the Northern Irish party significant influence in the British parliament, including on Brexit” and the DUP will drive a hard bargain.
Writing during the Tory leadership campaign, Patrick Maguire in the New Statesman said “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”.
“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”, he says.
But Brexit will not be the only thing up for discussion.
The Independent says the DUP “is widely expected to demand an even higher price to renew the agreement”, with more funding for Northern Ireland, a resolution to the row over free TV licences for the over-75s and assurances on Troubles legacy prosecutions also likely to be on the table.
The DUP was vocal in its opposition to plans by the BBC to means-test free TV licences for the over 75s, a move they claim sets a precedent that undermines the universality of pension-age benefits.
Citing the triple-lock and winter fuel allowance, which was only maintained as government policy as a result of the party’s confidence and supply arrangement, Maguire says “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”.
With many commentators believing Johnson is planning for a snap general election in the autumn, the new prime minister will be hoping a strong Brexit pledge will be enough to win it a majority outright.
If not he may be forced to call on the DUP again, presuming his government is able to agree a new deal that keeps them in power until then.