Strange and Unstable: What Happens Next in UK Politics?

theresa may and jeremy corbyn

As the excitement fades over the general election result on June 8, and Parliament uneasily reconvenes to legislate the Queen’s Speech, the instability surrounding the future of British Politics promotes constant speculation. It seems people aren’t willing to accept that the government led by Theresa May, propped up by the ten DUP MPs in Parliament, will last. Whether this is because people are listening to the shadow chancellor John McDonnell continuously encouraging the public to “defy Tory rule,” or whether precedent shows that leaders with slim majorities hardly remain leader for long (Ted Heath’s 1974 departure offering a prime example).

It’s not unfathomable to believe that there could be an election within the next six months, and almost certainly before the next election year in 2022. These next few months will show how tedious May’s claims of strong and stable leadership truly were. Crucially, it leads journalists and political scientists to debate and speculate the uncertain fate of Parliament under this Conservative Government.

For now, the Conservative majority remains propped up by an unofficial coalition with the DUP, who have promised their support for two years at the expense of 1.5bn for the taxpayer. This is not the first time a Conservative Government has relied on DUP backing; David Cameron often relied on their loose alliance to protect against the unruly defiance of back-bench dissent. Yet, an agreement with economic backing brings continued implications for the future of British Politics: Welsh MPs have already called for 1.7bn to match the money given to Northern Ireland, and Cumbrian MPs Tim Farron, John Woodcock and Sue Hayman have asked for 278mil for their respective county, and leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn calling for the deal to extend to all parts of the UK.

“The DUP have consistently blocked attempts to legalise gay marriage in Northern Ireland, or introduce fairer abortion laws.”

With accusations of May paying for votes, this deal has been negatively received by the press and other party leaders. According to SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, “any sense of fairness sacrificed on the altar of grubby DUP deal to let PM cling to power.” With May’s poll ratings falling by the day, her position as leader will be viewed with cautious pragmatism by many in her party in these crucial first months. A number Conservative MP’s remain unsatisfied with this deal. Heidi Allen, a Conservative MP, expressed “I can barely put into words my anger at the DUP deal.”

Crucially, the DUP deal raises several questions. The DUP have consistently blocked attempts to legalise gay marriage in Northern Ireland, or introduce fairer abortion laws. Despite reassurances that these social issues will not be used for bargaining, it is too soon to conclude that these unalienable rights will be protected. Already the DUP’s views on these issues have placed the Conservative’s in a difficult position. The amendment to the Queen’s speech put forward by Stella Creasy would allow Northern Irish women to travel to Britain to receive abortions on the NHS. This amendment received overwhelming support across the Parliamentary line, and resulted in the Minister for Women and Equalities Justine Greening to ensure that funding will be provided.

The Conservative Government had no choice but to back the amendment. If the vote would have made it to Parliament the DUP would have voted against the amendment, whilst at least forty Conservative MPs would have voted in favour.  There would have been a visible evidence of the precarious DUP/Tory coalition. Whether the fragility of the pact remains unearthed for now, the Conservative and DUP deal remains unable to encompass all issues of the Conservative manifesto. Theresa May will have to pick her areas of reform carefully.

The DUP/Tory deal has further repercussions in Northern Ireland. Yesterday, the DUP and Sinn Feinn failed to negotiate an agreement which would reconvene the Northern Irish Assembly. The deadline, which was set at 4pm yesterday, has been extended to Monday. If a deal is not achieved by then, the Northern Irish Secretary of State James Brokenshire has the power to give Westminster direct rule in Northern Ireland, or call another assembly election. The recent events of the DUP/Tory deal have indefinitely affected the UK Parliament neutrality in Northern Irish politics affirmed by the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, Arlene Foster, as head of the DUP, will no longer remembered as the person who ruined the Renewable Heat Incentive that contributed to the collapse of the Northern Irish Assembly, but the leader who secured for Northern Ireland an extra 1.5bn.

Where does this leave the depleted Conservative mandate? The Conservative Government can hardly claim that their manifesto was accepted by the public. May has recognised that manifesto policies such as school cuts and the “dementia tax” proved unpopular with the electorate. Policies such as an explicit commitment to grammar schools and lifting the fox hunting ban were seemingly missing from the Queen’s speech, and the terms of a “hard” Brexit remain ambiguous with the Conservative/DUP deal.

“What is certain is that this hung Parliament is showing a new type of politics rarely seen in the United Kingdom.”

Yet the Conservative/DUP majority managed to defeat Labour’s first amendment that promised more public spending and removing the pay cap on public sector workers, much to the anger of many in the electorate, including 68% of conservative voters. “Its about public safety” said Janet Davies, General Secretary of Royal College of Nursing. Indeed, ¾ of the electorate supported this amendment, with many public-sector workers suffering a cut of 15% in real terms. Other amendments to the Queen’s Speech, including Labour’s “alternative” Queen’s Speech, were struck down by a united Conservative/DUP alliance.

What is certain is that this hung Parliament is showing a new type of politics rarely seen in the United Kingdom. Stella Creasy’s amazing victory from the backbenches could indicate the power individual MP’s intend to exercise away from the party. This could make legislation on largely supported issues, such as access to abortion, a unanimous goal. After all, this victory was helped by a rumoured 40 Tory MPs refusing to toe the party line. A hung Parliament takes power away from the executive, and places it back into hands of the legislature. How long this forced bi-partisanship can last is unclear, unlikely a full five years if precedent is followed, especially when numerous MPs are calling for another election. What can be concluded is that these next few months will highlight the interesting juncture in Parliament, where survival may be prioritised over effective governance. Either way, neither party is ignoring the impending inevitability of another election.

Image courtesy of UK Parliament

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