Recent events show the strengths of a confidence and supply arrangement.
This Monday past, the EU27 and the UK failed to move into the next stage of the Brexit negotiations following the DUP’s declaration that they would not support a deal involving “regulatory divergence”, as reported by the BBC.
The recent development shows the weakness of May’s minority governance in a time when many would argue that clarity and strength are vital.
It’s unclear what this means for the future of the talks and what sort of Brexit deal will emerge, but one thing is apparent: the DUP – a party with ten MPs who secured just 0.9% of the overall vote in 2017 – will have a major say on the UK’s future direction. The paradox is that while most liberal remainers/soft-Brexiteers will find the DUP’s stance on numerous social issues abhorrent, they will find comfort in the possibility of the DUP’s potential to tie the UK into a softer Brexit.
As stated, the DUP are to a large extent pulling the strings with just ten MPs. This gives us a glimpse into an alternative reality where the Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats refused entering into a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and instead negotiated a confidence and supply arrangement. By agreeing a confidence and supply deal – one that heavily favours Northern Ireland – the DUP have limited their association with the Conservatives and delivered on behalf of many of their voters.
It’s impossible to know how a confidence and supply deal would have gone down in 2010 – it could have collapsed and led to a large Tory majority, for instance – but it’s difficult to imagine the Liberal Democrats losing as much support as they did in this reality. Hindsight is a wonderful deal, but propping up a minority administration in exchange for slower and shallower cuts, a real referendum on proportional representation and an end to (or at least a freeze) of tuition fees would have benefited the Liberal Democrats immensely.
This was a time of Cleggmania. If a confidence and supply deal had secured key Lib Dem pledges while not having Cameron and Clegg being all chummy in the Number 10 garden, Clegg could have gone further than deputy PM.
Of course, being in government allows parties to achieve their goals. Despite compromising on some key issues – providing an electoral shield for the Conservatives in 2010 – the party was able to deliver on a lot of its manifesto (the pupil premium, the Green investment bank and the increase of the income tax threshold to name a few). Coalitions are the norm in most of the world, but Britain was not ready in 2010.
If the Liberal Democrats get a chance to help form a government in the next couple of decades, a look at the 2010-2015 coalition and the current confidence and supply deal will surely help inform their decision about which road to take.