The Tory ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party is a symptom of the weakness and desperation of this government. It may also have a significant bearing on how the Brexit process plays out, and thus impact on the future of the UK for many decades.
Be in no doubt: I am deeply disappointed with what the government have done. Carwyn Jones, the Labour first minister of the Welsh government, was right when he described the Tory deal with the DUP as an outrageous “bung”; because surely we want to see greater public spending across the whole of the UK, not just one part of it? Forty per cent of children in my borough of Lambeth are living in poverty. Why do poor children in Belfast deserve respite from grinding austerity, but not those in Streatham and Brixton? MPs from Wales, Scotland and the rest of England are rightly asking the same question.
I am also appalled by the DUP’s prehistoric opinions on gay marriage and the right of women to choose to have an abortion. All of us in the Labour Party will stand against any attempt to impose such values on any part of our country. Ultimately, this deal exposes the government for what it really is — rudderless, weak, throwing around cash bribes in a desperate attempt to keep itself in power.
Nevertheless, the impact on Brexit will be interesting. The prime minister went into the general election seeking a personal mandate for a hard, extreme Brexit. The country refused to give it to her.
The Democratic Unionists, on the other hand, promised a greater degree of pragmatism in their approach to a British exit from the EU. They promised the voters that they would fight for a “frictionless” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, as well as a “comprehensive free trade and customs agreement” between the UK and the EU. They also want “arrangements to facilitate ease of movement of people, goods and services”, and to guarantee the rights of EU nationals living in the UK. Perhaps most significantly, there is no mention anywhere in the DUP policy platform of the possibility of leaving the EU with no deal.
So the DUP’s stance on Brexit causes more problems for the government, and some hope for those of us fighting for a sensible Brexit. For example, nobody in government has yet explained how the border between Northern Ireland can be “frictionless” if we are to leave the customs union, as the Tories say we will. Ireland is one of our biggest trading partners, with a billion pounds worth of goods and services crossing the border each day. Leaving the customs union will erect barriers to this trade — bad for our economy, and hardly what the DUP promised their voters.
Likewise, the government is intent on an ideological crackdown on immigration. How can this be achieved with an open border in Ireland, which would represent a back route into the UK? So far, the Tories seem to be pretending that we can outsource our border control to the government of the Republic, which is hardly sustainable. The DUP’s position implies a more constructive and nuanced approach to migration than we have heard from the government thus far.
So the Tory-DUP deal does many things. But it emphatically does not give this government a mandate for the hardest of hard Brexits in which we would leave the EU without an agreement. There is no mention of it in their policy platform. Many of their objectives would be utterly impossible were this to happen, such as on trade and the border. The government’s ‘no deal’ mantra is utterly hollow, lacking both a public mandate and a parliamentary majority. They should drop it, and drop it now.