John Major warns against DUP deal as talks with Tories begin
Financial Times, by Robert Wright, Henry Mance and John Murray Brown
The Conservatives and Democratic Unionists were edging towards a deal to keep Theresa May in power on Tuesday evening, despite warnings from Sir John Major, the former prime minister, about a deal’s potential harmful consequences.
Mrs May met Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, for around an hour in the afternoon for discussions that Mrs Foster described as “very good”. Downing Street called the discussions “constructive and positive”. A deal is expected to be agreed by the end of Wednesday.
But Sir John called for Mrs May to consider operating as a minority government instead of signing a deal with the that he said would “create friction” across the UK. Sir John told the BBC’s World at One programme that he was concerned about the deal with the DUP “for peace process reasons and other reasons as well”.
The DUP’s 10 MPs, with the 318 that the Conservatives won at last week’s election, could together command more than the 326 votes needed for an absolute majority in the House of Commons.
But speaking in Paris where she was meeting French President Emmanuel Macron, Mr May Mrs May defended her decision to seek a deal with the DUP, saying it would give “stability … in the national interest” and that the British government would continue to work with all Northern Irish parties to fulfil past peace agreements.
“We as a government remain absolutely steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast agreement and the subsequent agreements,” she said. “We continue to work with all the parties in Northern Ireland and with the government of the Republic of Ireland in ensuring that we can continue to put in place those measures necessary to fulfil those agreements.”
Parliament on Tuesday resumed business for the first time since the election, with the re-election of John Bercow as speaker.
The Tories and the DUP have been negotiating since Saturday for a “confidence and supply” agreement to keep Mrs May in office.
Mrs Foster said her discussions with Mrs May had centred on “matters that pertain to the nation generally, bringing stability to the UK government in and around issues relating to Brexit, obviously around counter-terrorism, and then doing what’s right for Northern Ireland in respect of economic matters”.
However, Sir John warned it was a fundamental part of the peace process that the UK government needed to be impartial between the competing interests in Northern Ireland.
“The danger is that however much any government tries, they will not be seen to be impartial if they are locked into a parliamentary deal at Westminster with one of the Northern Ireland parties,” Sir John, who was prime minister from 1990 to 1997, said.
There has been widespread concern about the implications of a deal with the hardline unionist party, both for Northern Ireland and the UK more generally. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, at the weekend sought assurances about the implications for gay rights and other social issues on which the DUP takes a deeply conservative stance.
The concerns over the peace process, meanwhile, come after political confrontation in the province earlier this year. The DUP and Sinn Féin — the biggest unionist and nationalist parties respectively — have been unable to agree terms for the resumption of their previous joint government.
Any extra money that went to Northern Ireland under a deal with the DUP could cause problems in other parts of the UK, Sir John warned.
“It’s going to create friction among them,” he predicted.
Sir John’s government in effect governed as a minority for long periods between 1992 and 1997. Sir John recommended Mrs May try to govern as a minority without a formal deal with the DUP.
In the Commons, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, mocked the potential deal with the DUP as a “coalition of chaos”, while Labour offered “strong and stable leadership in the national interest”. The remarks were a reversal of Conservative claims during the election campaign that Labour threatened a “coalition of chaos” if it won.
Mrs May joked of the speaker’s unanimous re-election: “At least someone got a landslide.”
Richard Bullick, a former special adviser to Mrs Foster, said the DUP was unlikely to seek terms relating to the peace process or restoration of power-sharing in any deal with the Conservatives.
However, he expected the DUP would be pressing for a restoration of the “triple lock” on pensions, which the Conservative manifesto promised to abolish. The lock — which the DUP manifesto pledged to keep — guarantees pensions will rise annually by the highest of price inflation, wage inflation or 2.5 per cent. The Conservatives plan to guarantee rises only by whichever is highest of prices or inflation.
“That’s a clear area where there’s a difference between the DUP manifesto and the Conservative manifesto and older people have always been an important constituency for the DUP,” Mr Bullick said.