Belfast Telegraph

Anthony Seldon: DUP's concern over any deal was not God, abortion or gay marrriage... it was extra funds

The final extract from the new book on Theresa May's premiership by Anthony Seldon focuses on how a deal was clinched with the DUP

Theresa May in Downing Street with the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson
Theresa May in Downing Street with the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson
Jonathan Caine was deeply involved in negotiations
Gavin Williamson was deeply involved in negotiations

By Anthony Seldon

For a while, it seemed as if the talks might stall. The pressure was all on one side to start with, but the DUP quickly became alarmed by the prospect of failure.

Gavin Williamson's insistence that the coalition offer remained on the table rapidly became superfluous.

The penny dropped that if the DUP were in formal coalition with the Conservatives, it would mean signing up to policies which would have resulted in endless acrimony with their supporters.

Recognising the fragility of Theresa May's position, the risk of a Jeremy Corbyn government if she fell and the opprobrium of their supporters if they were to reject the Tories and the offer of money that would come their way, the DUP fell in behind the confidence-and-supply option.

On Saturday afternoon, with the negotiations coming to an end, Williamson texted May to say, 'The deal is done'.

By about 4pm, the negotiators from London were concluding that the DUP's body language was good, and they started turning to a joint press statement to release later that afternoon.

A draft was sent to the No. 10 press office, who replied, "We're going to release this unless we hear from you to the contrary in a few minutes".

Sign In

The pressure to get the story out was intense - too intense for the deliberative processes of the DUP. "You cannot send it out" were the last words Williamson said before the plane door slammed on the way home.

But that message did not get back to London.

By the time they landed, a statement had been released by No. 10: an agreement with the DUP had been reached on a confidence-and-supply motion which was going to be discussed with the Cabinet on June 12.

The DUP "went utterly apoplectic". So did Williamson.

So too did May. Accusing Williamson of bad faith, and of bouncing them into a premature agreement before they had squared all their supporters, the DUP suggested they'd break off all relations.

Frantic messages flew to and from Belfast, forcing No. 10 to retract.

Sky News reported that Downing Street's earlier statement about the deal had been "issued in error" and that talks between the Conservative Party and the DUP were still ongoing.

The precipitous official from the press team was roundly "bawled out" by Williamson, while May told him more gently, "That caused me some heart attacks in the night. Let's try and avoid that again", she said with a smile, according to a contemporary account.

The DUP conceded that they had to issue a statement that the talks had been at least 'positive', though it was announced that the Queen's Speech, due to have been delivered on June 19, might be delayed to give both sides more time to finalise their partnership.

The BBC commented that, while not all DUP politicians strictly observed the Sabbath, enough did so to make it party policy to avoid being seen to negotiate on a Sunday: "It was no coincidence that a DUP statement effectively denying that any final deal with Theresa May had been reached was published at midnight exactly, not one minute past."

By the Sunday morning, calm had returned, as No. 10 grew more confident that the DUP would come to an agreement, albeit with much haggling expected before that point was reached.

The decks were sufficiently cleared for May to continue with the remainder of her Cabinet reshuffle.

The Cabinet Office, which had been frantically looking back at the 2010-15 coalition and the rationale behind the posts offered to the Liberal Democrats, breathed a sigh of relief.

"There had been talk about the Chief Secretary to the Treasury going to the DUP. We were asking ourselves all kinds of questions, but it was a slightly crazy idea, way ahead of the official advice we had given Williamson," said one official - though Cabinet posts were on offer if the DUP opted for the coalition agreement presented to them.

That afternoon, May duly appointed the rest of her senior team, all Conservatives, some of them still loyal to her, with not a DUP member in sight.

By Tuesday, June 13, however, frustration and worry were setting in on both sides.

At the 8.30 morning meeting at No. 10, George Hollingbery noted: "We decided we needed to get tough with them. The Queen's Speech had already been delayed from the 19th, but no date had yet been given. So we decided at this meeting that it would be Wednesday, June 21, to apply at least some pressure on the DUP, and that Gavin Williamson would take a slightly harder line."

Around the same time, Jonathan Caine received a call from the DUP - Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds, Tim Johnston and Jon Robinson were in London and wanted to meet him.

"They were very angry," he recalled, when he found them at the Royal Horseguards Hotel.

"They said the document - which I still hadn't seen - looked like it was drafted in Dublin."

Caine suggested adapting the "much more pro-Union language" of the Northern Ireland version of the Conservative manifesto.

They said they would pursue this idea and later, around lunchtime, Caine received another call - this time from No. 10 - asking if he could go over that afternoon, at the request of the DUP.

Later that day, Foster stated that discussions were going well and sources indicated there were "no outstanding issues left".

But the following day, as news emerged of a devastating fire engulfing Grenfell Tower in west London, the party said it would be inappropriate to announce a deal.

Discussions that week ran with Foster, Dodds and Donaldson in the lead for the DUP, with both sides finding the other awkward.

According to one special advisor present, the officials at the negotiations "freaked [the DUP] out", so "we shifted the venue to Gavin's Chief Whip's office so they wouldn't be spooked".

Williamson gave No. 10 regular updates on progress.

On June 15, No. 10 felt sufficiently confident for Andrea Leadsom, in her first week as Leader of the House of Commons, to announce that the Queen's Speech would take place on Wednesday, June 21, 13 days after the general election.

David Davis similarly confirmed that Brexit talks with the EU would officially commence as planned on Monday, June 19.

May herself announced that a two-year parliamentary session, rather than the traditional one year, would begin on the same date, a move that was immediately denounced by Labour as an attempt to shore up her position after failing to win a majority.

Despite agreement on the Queen's Speech, talks dragged on into the week beginning Monday June 19, with a four-hour meeting required to clear all remaining issues.

For the DUP, their key concern was not God - abortion and gay marriage - but Mammon, ie extra funding for Northern Ireland.

They eventually settled at £1bn of extra spending for health, infrastructure and education, a figure Williamson claims he'd conceived from the outset.

The final agreement, as Kavanagh and Cowley note, went wider than just a confidence-and-supply agreement, "if not as wide as the Lib-Lab pact of 1976-78".

After negotiations were whittled down to two teams of two - Williamson and Caine on one side, Dodds and Donaldson on the other - the document was eventually signed at No. 10 by the two Chief Whips, Williamson and Donaldson, in the presence of the two party leaders on Monday, June 26.

It guaranteed support on all motions of confidence, the Queen's Speech, the Budget, finance Bills, legislation relating to Brexit and to national security, and was to remain in place for the entire parliament, but to be reviewed every parliamentary session.

("Interestingly," Caine recalls, "one of the revisions that had later significance was dropping, at the DUP's insistence, the word 'all' in respect of supporting EU legislation.")

The Conservatives pledged no change either to the pension triple lock or to the winter fuel payment, and included a statement of their ongoing commitment to the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Both parties agreed further to adhere to the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, to work towards the formation of a new Northern Ireland Executive, and that votes relating to other matters in the Commons should be agreed to on a case-by-case basis.

"With the DUP on board, the PM was safe," said Deputy Chief Whip Julian Smith. "Gavin had done a great job."

Indeed he had, and - while Caine's quieter role was also crucial - it was a real moment of triumph for the Chief Whip.

The deal guaranteed the government a working majority of thirteen in the Commons on all matters relating to Brexit, though not on the domestic legislation, and not in the House of Lords.

Without the deal, May and the government would have fallen.

But even with the deal, her domestic agenda, as well as her Brexit strategy, would be severely hampered.

The reaction was predictably caustic.

Corbyn said: "This Tory-DUP deal is clearly not in the national interest, but in May's party's interest to help her cling to power," while outgoing Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron added: "The public will not be duped by this shoddy little deal."

The most ferocious reactions came from Scotland and Wales, angry that Northern Ireland was benefiting from largesse at the expense of the other devolved nations, who branded the deal "shabby" and "a straight bung".

The first DUP skirmish came as early as September, when they broke with the government in support of binding Labour motions on university tuition fees and pay for NHS employees.

But it was to be the relationship between the DUP and the European Research Group (ERG), unforeseen in June 2017, that was to present the biggest problem for May.

The DUP bond breathed renewed life into her premiership after the general election debacle - but it was also to take that oxygen away altogether two years later.

Taken from May At 10, by Anthony Seldon. Published by Biteback Publishing and priced at £25

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph