It’s a courageous plan, in the Sir Humphrey sense. Many journalists argue that Cameron has a duty to preserve the Union. Certainly he does, but his overtures to the Ulster Unionists have been self-defeating. There is an assumption that the Unionist parties are conservative. Besides conserving the Union, they are not.
Back in February, I reported that the Tory alliance with Reg Empey was serving only to eviscerate the UUP, as its socialist and social democratic factions revolted against Tory alignment. Sylvia Hermon, Christopher and Michael McGimpsey, Shelia Davidson and Peter McCann have all either said they will not stand under a Conservative banner or resigned. Since then the UUP’s candidate in South Antrim, Adrian Watson, has been ousted for not conforming to the brand. Northern Ireland’s geo-politics is local, and all of these candidates represent largely like-minded constituents. Assuming the UUP return to Westminster in any strength, their support for a radical Conservative agenda will be qualified at best.
Cameron will find the DUP no more accommodating. The DUP has run a concerted anti-Tory, anti-UUP campaign. This letter to the Belfast Telegraph from Arlene Foster MLA is a typical example. That’s electioneering, you might argue, but there’s a further complication. Whilst the DUP reiterates many Tory sentiments on public spending, it is opposed to stringent cuts in Northern Ireland. The manifesto reads:
‘After decades of underinvestment in infrastructure Northern Ireland needs to build for the future. During the Troubles money was diverted away from infrastructure and into security and as a result Northern Ireland faced a massive infrastructure deficit. During the 1960s, under the Stormont Parliament Northern Ireland was at the forefront in building new roads.’
Cameron found himself in hot-water for identifying Northern Ireland and the regions for large cuts. He is both right and realistic on this point, but nevertheless felt he needed to soften his position in this podcast. Which stance will he take in government? Trusting in Unionist co-operation, even informally, looks like a possible triumph for hope over experience.