LONDON: Britain’s prime minister has opened talks with a Northern Ireland-based party Tuesday to see if they can create an alliance to push through the Conservative Party’s agenda after a disastrous snap election left her short of a majority in Parliament.
Theresa May desperately needs the Democratic Unionist party’s 10 seats to pass legislation. The Conservatives are considering an arrangement in which the Northern Ireland party backs May on the budget and her confidence motions and the DUP stands to make huge gains from the deal.
Party leader Arlene Foster seemed buoyant as she arrived at May’s Downing Street office and her happy mood continued even after May left for the House of Commons without comment.
“Discussions are going well with the government and we hope soon to be able to bring this work to a successful conclusion,” Foster tweeted.
The talks with the DUP follow May’s apology to Conservative rank-and-file lawmakers in a meeting Monday which signalled she would be more open to consultation, particularly with business leaders demanding answers about the details on Britain’s departure from the European Union.
“I’m the person who got us into this mess and I’m the one who will get us out of it,” she said.
May is under pressure to take on a more cross-party approach to Brexit talks. The Evening Standard, edited by ex-Treasury chief George Osborne, reported that Cabinet ministers have initiated talks with opposition Labour lawmakers to come up with a “softer,” less hard-line divorce from the EU.
Pressed on the reports, Environment Secretary Michael Gove declined to deny it. He told Sky News that the reality of the election result meant that May and her government would need to reach beyond party lines.
“The parliamentary arithmetic is such that we are going to have to work with everyone,” he said.
Foster will almost certainly ask for greater investment in Northern Ireland as part of the deal, as well as guarantees on support for pension plans and for winter fuel allowances for older people.
Though Foster supported Brexit, she also might demand that May pursue a cushioned exit from the EU, given her party’s wish that a soft border remain between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an EU member.
Even the idea of an alliance is complicated, however. Some involved in the Irish peace process are alarmed because the 1998 Good Friday peace accords call for the British government to be neutral in the politics of Northern Ireland.
Foster’s rivals in Northern Ireland, such as Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, have objected, describing any partnership between the Conservatives and the DUP as “a coalition of chaos.”
“Any deal which undercuts in any way the process here or the Good Friday Agreement is one which has to be opposed,” he said.
The stakes for May are high as lawmakers return for their first day of business Tuesday. Without a so-called confidence and supply deal with the DUP, her party risks losing the vote next week on the Queen’s Speech, which lays out the agenda for the government.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is pushing for this outcome, and has repeatedly said he was ready to try to form a government.
Meanwhile, the chief EU negotiator has told the Financial Times that Britain that the clock was ticking on Brexit talks, and that Britain should be wary of further delays. Michel Barnier warned that no progress had been made in the three months since May triggered Article 50, starting the process of leaving the union.
“My preoccupation is that time is passing, it is passing quicker than anyone believes because the subjects we have to deal with are extraordinarily complex,” he added. “I can’t negotiate with myself.”