Well, with Brown exiting the stage, the talks on a Lib-Lab coalition are on as I write. And there’s one thing that’s annoying my brain in terms of the TV pundits and what they have to say about the arithmetic, and the prospect of a rainbow coalition.
First, the basic arithmetic. The winning post to get a bare majority in the Commons – taking into account the five abstentionist Sinn Féin MPs – is 323. Labour and the Lib Dems together have 315 – as the pundits point out, a little short, although more than the Tories can command on their own. Clearly the combo would require at least eight additional votes from somewhere.
Where could they pick up eight extra votes? To me, the answer has been obvious all along, but few people seem to have cottoned on to this. Where do you get eight votes? Easy.
You get them from the DUP.
At this point the bien-pensants go spare, at least those who have considered the issue. Because I find it highly amusing how British political correspondents don’t get the basics about this place. There was on Thursday night and Friday morning some talk on the teevee about how Cameron could count on the support of the “Ulster Unionists”. Would that perchance be the UUP led by Sir Reg Empey, which is indeed allied to Cameron? Because that party doesn’t have any MPs. What you’ve got is the DUP.
The pundits, thereafter, have tended to automatically lump the DUP into the Tory column. I assume this is because they’re reading Norn Iron politics on a left-right ideological spectrum, and thereby assuming the DUP have an affinity with the Tories. This doesn’t really work, for reasons I will get onto in the next post. Firstly, let me say that the DUP’s actual record in Westminster is one of wheeling and dealing with whomsoever can get them something they want, and indeed Sammy and Ian Jr have been going around the studios showing a bit of leg. Secondly, the DUP has just come out of an election campaign against Cameron’s local allies, fought on a fiercely anti-Tory basis. So an alignment with Cameron, while it can’t be ruled out, can’t be taken for granted either.
What’s more, this would put rather few demands on the Lib-Lab alliance. This wouldn’t be a question of having the DUP in government – we’re not looking at Sammy Wilson becoming minister for climate change – but of cooperation in Parliament, not voting down the budget and such. Nor do the DUP have any wacky policy demands – most of the stuff they care about is devolved to Stormont. What isn’t devolved is fiscal policy, and what they care about in terms of Westminster is protecting the block grant – this was their main line of attack against the Tories – and maybe getting a little cheque for police widows and such. And again, since Norn Iron is such a small place with a small economy, this would be much cheaper than any deal that might be struck with the SNP or Plaid – English taxpayers would hardly notice it, and it could be passed off as a peace process overhead.
This would probably be made more palatable if we put it in terms of the Norn Iron Grand Alliance, which would mean our thirteen MPs who take their seats collaborating to squeeze advantage out of the hung parliament. It helps that the other five are not averse to Lib-Labbery – the SDLP have taken the Labour whip for decades, Alliance have had close ties with the Lib Dems since the 1970s, and Lady Sylvia Hermon broke with the UUP due to her affinity with Labour. (One presumes there would also be moral support from the five abstentionists. Naomi Long raised this in the Assembly today, and Martin McGuinness was notably warm on the subject.) There are no automatically pro-Tory votes over here – nor, importantly, are there parties competing with Labour as the SNP does.
So, is this likely to happen? I don’t know, although if there is a Lib-Lab understanding it makes perfect sense in terms of the maths. It would, of course, cause conniptions in some of the Grauniad-reading advocates of a centre-left progressive alliance, that such a government would be reliant on hillbilly Paisleyites to get its agenda through. Which is sort of why there’s a part of me that hopes it happens, for thon would be deadly crack. And, let’s face it, a government of Blairites and Orange Bookers couldn’t be dragged any further to the right by the DUP.