Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Are Tories' flirting with the DUP to win vital votes?

Theresa Villiers

Ivan Lewis, the shadow secretary of state, has made a brave start getting stuck in to Theresa Villiers, but is it time for him and his predecessor Vernon Coaker to claim a victory?

Ms Villiers and the Tory government have, it must be admitted, been regularly engaged with Northern Ireland in recent months. Labour could always put the increase down to their prodding and move on to demanding more content.

Under Owen Paterson, Ms Villiers' predecessor, there were constant complaints from the First and DeputyFirst Minister that Downing Street was shunning them. Not any more. Under Ms Villiers' watch, an agreement was signed with the Executive on an economic development package and a shared future.

It can easily be argued that there is not enough money underpinning the investment strategy and not enough sharing in the shared future strategy, but both still flow from engagement.

So did the G8 summit and, just recently, the Titanic investment conference. Ms Villiers (right) came here at the end of the summer to speak out against marching disorder when local ministers were scarce. She talked to victims' groups, she meets Richard Haass regularly and she has closely co-ordinated her approach with the Irish government.

In the meantime, we may detect an ulterior motive, beyond their love of the province and commitment to the union, behind all this Tory interest. One motive could be attracting the votes of DUP MPs in crucial House of Commons divisions.

Most commentators don't expect a majority government next time around, and some predict a breakdown of the coalition before then. The eight DUP seats, and it could be nine or even 10 after the next election, could come in handy.

That, a senior DUP source recently speculated, may be why the Tories are playing the decision on the devolution of corporation tax so long. Keeping us dangling undeniably provides leverage until October of next year, when Mr Cameron has pledged to give his answer on the issue. His claim that he needs to wait for the devolution referendum in Scotland isn't very persuasive.

Perhaps Labour could push the Conservatives on the quality rather than just the quantity of engagement.

In particular, they might ask how much actual hard cash accompanies the rhetoric on economic re-balancing and what is holding up the decision on corporation tax.

Whatever the outcome is going to be, we need it to plan ahead.

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