Reflections on the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) Conference and how it has affected the current political climate.
I attended my first DUP conference in November 2016.
I had attended the other main UK political party conferences as an independent political commentator and had an instinct that the DUP would soon be a more significant force in British politics. How right that intuition turned out to be, as some months later, Theresa May called an early General Election, agreed by Parliament, which was held on 6th June 2017.
This was a major miscalculation by her, and the result was that the Conservatives had a reduced majority, meaning they had to approach the DUP to help keep them in power.
There was then what is known as the “Confidence and Supply Agreement” which meant that the DUP would back the Conservatives as the governing party, and support them in significant Parliamentary votes.
This worked relatively well with few hiccups and the DUP succeeded in obtaining additional funding for Northern Ireland projects.
For the DUP, they were supporting the Conservative and Unionist Party (with the emphasis on Unionism) and also they believed they were supporting a party which would properly deliver on Brexit.
At the next DUP party conference, it was significant that Damien Green, then effectively the Deputy Prime Minister, and Julian Smith, Chief Whip, were guest speakers.
At the time, they were received quite enthusiastically, and the DUP at that stage had little reason to doubt the commitments they had been given by Theresa May and those Conservatives in her inner circle.
The DUP have for some time had a reception with speeches at the Conservative Party conferences. I noticed that even at the 2017 conference which preceded the DUP one of that year, that a number of Conservatives I spoke said they wished that Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, was their leader.
At the Conservative party DUP reception in the autumn of 2018, there were more inspiring speeches by the DUP leadership team, and Foster shone again in the minds of her many Conservative admirers.
It was interesting that at the latest DUP conference, on 23rd and 24th November 2018 in Belfast, that the two Conservative party guests were Chancellor Phillip Hammond and Boris Johnson, leading Brexit critic of Theresa May.
Both were welcomed with courtesy and Phillip Hammond actually made a better than expected speech, interspersed with some surprising humour.
However, whilst the Chancellor’s political message was politely listened to and received muted applause, it was no comparison to the enthusiastic reception which Boris Johnson received when he spoke the next day.
Boris Johnson was seen as someone who stood up for a firm Brexit whereas Phillip Hammond was seen as still a closet Remainer.
What they did have in common in their speeches was their attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and John Macdonald. It was almost as though these points were made in an attempt to court favour with the DUP. I was, however, told, that the DUP could see through such efforts and were solely focussed on what was good for the UK and of course good for Northern Ireland.
What some Conservatives seem to forget is that there is a big socially conscious element to DUP policies and that attacking nationalisation and some other Labour policies simply will not wash at all.
Has the DUP’s loss of faith in Theresa May started the beginning of the end of her premiership?
The DUP are friendly but wise in their dealings with the Conservatives.
The mistake Theresa May and her close colleagues have made is to take them too much for granted and in considering them gullible.
At the DUP reception at the Conservative party conference I had the opportunity to ask Foster if they were being strong enough with Theresa May and her inner circle, bearing in mind they had the balance of power.
She clearly expressed a little surprise at this question and effectively said there were being very forthright with them. It is quite possible that the DUP had been firm in their discussions on Brexit, but that they had been cleverly deceived, with the wool pulled over their eyes.
Whatever the situation, I did detect a stronger resolve coming from the DUP over the following weeks.
At the DUP conference I had spoken to a number of their politicians, and as usual with their Northern Ireland hospitality, was given a warm welcome.
Having listened to a number of excellent speeches, there was a very firm line expressed on the Brexit scenario.
I took the trouble to ask Emma Little-Pengelly, MP, and Diane Dodds, MEP, as to whether the DUP would actually vote against the government on the Brexit issue if Theresa May’s stance did not substantially change. They were clearly surprised that I even asked the question and made it abundantly clear that they would not support the government on an unsatisfactory Brexit deal.
To be fair, the DUP MP’s performance on recent votes have borne that out.
However, on Thursday night’s This Week programme, when questioned by Andrew Neil, Emma Little-Pengelly did gave a ray of hope to the government, but that was dependent on Theresa May coming back from the EU with something substantial.
That prospect seems highly unlikely going by the latest news about her EU trip. However, it does demonstrate that the DUP have gone out of their way to try to be supportive of the government.
In return, it appears that that Theresa May has made commitments to them in respect of the EU negotiations which she has not kept to. That leads to a lack of confidence in her, and not just from the DUP.
Part 2 of the story of the PM and the DUP will follow on Independence Daily tomorrow.