‘The Tories’ deal with the DUP papers over the cracks, but it can’t work miracles’, Telegraph, 26 June 2017.

The ten parliamentary votes provided to Theresa May by the Democratic Unionist Party come at a pretty high price. Not only do they work out at a hundred million pounds apiece in extra spending; there’s also the reputational cost to the Conservatives of parting with cash the country supposedly doesn’t have in order to secure the backing of a party most British voters don’t much like the look of.

On top of that comes the suggestion that perhaps they needn’t have bothered – that the DUP could have been relied upon to keep a beleaguered Theresa May in office anyway, given that the alternative, a possible Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn, is anathema to it.

Well maybe. But maybe not. And that is in some ways the point.

Right now, the DUP, whatever its views of the relative merits of Mrs May and Mr Corbyn, clearly enjoys what is known in the rational choice jargon employed by political scientists interested in government formation as tremendous “walkaway value”.  Its ten MPs figure, probably correctly, that the Conservatives need them more than they need the Conservatives.

This isn’t, after all, a one-shot game. If the DUP were to allow its bluff to be called by the Tories, and simply troop meekly through the lobbies after its demands were rejected, it would lack all credibility were it to find itself in this or a similar situation ever again. Assuming, therefore, that it would fold for fear of letting in Labour would be very foolish indeed.

What matters most to the Tories at the moment – and matters much more than money, obviously – is signalling that the plug won’t be pulled on the government at any minute, at least in the short-to-medium term.  Brexit makes that all the more vital since it involves sending that message both to backbenchers who need to know that there will be no backsliding and EU member states who need to know they’re not wasting their time negotiating with a partner that might suddenly disappear.

Confidence and supply arrangements, which have become more and more frequent when countries find themselves pushed by parliamentary arithmetic toward minority government, are designed effectively to lock “support parties” like the DUP into deals that discourage them, having received an initial payoff, from further attempts at blackmail later on.

More mundanely, but just as importantly, confidence and supply arrangements lower transaction costs for both sides involved.  Minority government can involve an almost day-by-day search for workable cross-party compromise across a huge range of domestic and international policy. Unless the really big stuff has already been taken care of by being included in the arrangement then that work on the small stuff can become simply too exhausting.  And that’s when mistakes get made, tempers get frayed, and people do and say things that they can’t put right.

That’s not to say, of course, that the Tories and the DUP won’t fall out with each other anyway.  “Contract parliamentarism”, as it’s known in the jargon, can be useful. But it can’t work miracles.

Originally published at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/26/tories-deal-dup-papers-cracks-cant-work-miracles/


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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