A shock exit poll which put the Tories on course for a disastrous result last night had the DUP openly salivating at the prospect of being king-makers in a hung Parliament.
The broadcasters’ exit poll, which historically has been very close to the actual result, suggested the UK is heading for a hung parliament, with the Conservatives the largest single party in the House of Commons but 12 seats short of the 326 they need for an absolute majority.
Across Great Britain, the projection put the Tories on 314 seats, with Labour on 266, the SNP on 34 and the Liberal Democrats on 14.
Last night the psephologist Nicholas Whyte said that if the exit poll was exactly replicated in the actual result, the Conservatives and unionists would have a majority if Sinn Fein continued to refuse to take its seats in the Commons.
Just after midnight, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams insisted that regardless of the result his party would stand by its abstentionist policy and continue to boycott the Commons – even if that means putting the Tories into power.
After March’s nationalist surge in the Assembly election, it was clear that unionists had come to the polls in large numbers. The overwhelmingly unionist seat of North Down – which almost invariably has the lowest turnout – had a turnout of 61%, which was even higher than in March’s election and well above the 56% in the last General Election two years ago.
It began as a good night for the DUP on two counts – not just the national exit poll appearing to put it in the frame nationally, but locally the party appeared to have polled strongly.
The party’s most vulnerable seat, East Belfast, appeared to be secure. A mini exit poll by the News Letter’s Ben Lowry pointed to the sitting DUP MP Gavin Robinson having increased his majority over Alliance leader Naomi Long.
At the Belfast count centre, Alliance sources were gloomy about their prospects in the seat – even though it was clear that Mrs Long had polled well.
And, in a second boost for the DUP, Arlene Foster’s party was contemplating the possibility of significant influence – or even being the kingmaker – in either a hung Parliament or a Commons chamber where the Tories had a slender majority.
Although the DUP is ideologically opposed to Jeremy Corbyn on a multitude of levels, the party last night could not hide its delight at the projected outcome.
Senior MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that if the exit poll was correct it would be “perfect territory for the DUP”, putting the party in a “very strong negotiating position”.
He said that the prospect of a hung Parliament makes the DUP “serious players” on the national stage.
Speaking as counting got under way at the Lagan Valley count centre near Lisburn, the DUP veteran said: “If the Conservatives are just short of an overall majority it puts us in a very very strong negotiating position, and certainly one that we will take up with relish.”
However, Mr Donaldson stressed that he was not going to pre-empt the outcome of the poll ahead of the ballots being counted.
“What I will say is that we will be serious players if there is a hung Parliament. We will go in and we will talk to whoever it is, and it looks like the Conservative Party will be the largest party.
“We will talk to them, we have a lot in common. We want to see Brexit work, and or course for Northern Ireland we want to see the Union strengthened and the Conservatives are committed to that.
“Obviously we will want to get the best deal for Northern Ireland,” he added.
Sir Jeffrey did, however, caution: “Our experience in 2015 is that the Conservatives got an overall majority despite the predictions of the exit poll and the early results coming in do indicate that the exit poll may not be entirely accurate.”
Speaking on the BBC, DUP MLA Christopher Stalford said: “I don’t think it’s about being king-maker or not; it’s about the national interest. We are a unionist party and we care about the United Kingdom and the decisions that we take would be based on the national interest of the United Kingdom. That’s the responsible thing to do.”
If there is a hung Parliament, the DUP has already made clear that it will only support the Conservatives – as have the Ulster Unionists. That would appear to reduce the negotiating room in comparison to the position two years ago when the DUP was hoping for a hung Parliament and was prepared to negotiated between the Tories and Labour, depending on which party made it the best offer.
However, even though the DUP is firmly lined up behind the Tories this time, the changed circumstances at Stormont still make this a particularly advantageous position for the party.
Even a slender Conservative majority would give the DUP considerable influence in tight votes – right at the point where Westminster may be taking back control of Stormont’s responsibilities, whether by classic direct rule or some other mechanism.