Sam McBride: Theresa May ought to be alarmed – the DUP is flexing its muscles

If Theresa May wants to remain prime minister, she is now at the mercy of the DUP
If Theresa May wants to remain prime minister, she is now at the mercy of the DUP

For anyone in the Conservative Party who believed that the DUP would be pliable lobby-fodder to keep them in power, the events of Saturday evening provided a warning.

With Theresa May under mounting internal pressure after her disastrous election result, on Saturday the government’s chief whip flew to Belfast for talks with senior DUP figures in a bid to hastily tie down the details of an agreement which will give the Tories a Commons majority.

At 7.30pm on Saturday, Downing Street issued a statement which said “we can confirm that the DUP have agreed to the principles of an outline agreement to support the Conservative government on a confidence and supply basis”.

Just four and a half hours later, a midnight DUP statement said that although “the talks so far have been positive”, the discussions “will continue next week to work on the details and to reach agreement on arrangements for the new Parliament” – effectively saying that agreement had not been reached.

Within an hour, Downing Street issued a second statement saying that talks are ongoing and that the details would emerge “as and when” they were finalised.

In relation to the first government statement, Sky News Ireland correspondent David Blevins reported that Downing Street had “issued the wrong statement in error”. That comment was retweeted by the DUP Twitter account. If that is correct, it may seem entirely reasonable for the DUP to clarify what exactly was going on.

However, in the context of what Downing Street had said, the error appears to have been minor. The fact that the DUP so quickly jumped in to point out the mistake – fully aware of the consequences for a weakened Theresa May – will no doubt alarm a prime minister who was already reeling from being shorn of her two key advisers.

The government was not claiming that the DUP had agreed to enter coalition with the Tories, something which would require a detailed agreement, such as that between David Cameron and Nick Clegg in 2010.

Rather, the government statement claimed an understanding of “the principles” of “an outline” agreement which would involve confidence (joining with the Tories to vote down votes of no confidence) and supply (passing the budget).

In fact, the DUP has already explicitly said that it would support the Tories in the event of a hung Parliament, out of a loathing of Jeremy Corbyn over his links to republicanism and an ideological opposition to large swathes of his manifesto.

The very least which that support could involve would be a confidence and supply arrangement.

The DUP are experienced negotiators and ruthless exponents of Aneurin Bevan’s dictum that politics is a blood sport. They will be entirely aware of the implications of Saturday night’s statement for an already weakened prime minister.

Many senior DUP figures admire not only Mrs May’s forthright unionism but her brand of One Nation Conservatism and her move away from some of the stridently individualistic Thatcherite rhetoric. Therefore, if she can survive the DUP will be very comfortable doing business with her.

But if Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds and their small circle of advisers calculate that Mrs May is too wounded to lead a credible government, the DUP will not be shy about making that explicit.

In fact, on election night Mrs Foster said of Mrs May: “I think it will be difficult for her to survive.”

As the lead party in the devolved Stormont Executive for the last decade, the DUP has experience of how awkward junior partners in a coalition can be.

This is not a party which is likely to be sated by a few million pounds for Northern Ireland. It will extract a high price – and not just in financial terms.