Confidence and supply: How does the Conservative minority government with the DUP work?

Jasper Jolly
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General Election 2017- Belfast Count and Declaration
DUP leader Arlene Foster (centre left) with MPs Nigel Dodds, Emma Little Pengelly and Gavin Robinson (Source: Getty)

Theresa May has confirmed she will carry on as Prime Minister with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). May’s Conservatives are short of a majority and there is no formal coalition agreement, so we are now into the murky world of a government operating under confidence and supply.

Are the Conservatives the governing party?

Yes. Theresa May has asked the Queen to form a government, which means she will continue as the Prime Minister and choose the Cabinet. The Conservatives are also the largest single party with 318 MPs so far.

But the Conservatives will be a minority government – not a formal coalition like the Tory/Liberal Democrat 2010 deal – a situation not seen since the Labour/Liberal pact under Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1977-78.

How does a minority government make actual laws?

The British Parliament runs on majority votes: if you don’t have more than the 326 votes needed for a majority, then you cannot function. A minority government needs help to pass vital bills.

What is confidence and supply?

To become the government, the Prime Minister’s party needs to pass a Queen’s Speech, a Budget (the "supply" part, along with other spending), and to bat away any votes of no confidence ("confidence") in the House of Commons.

A minority government needs to rely on the support of other parties to get through these votes and anything else it wants to get done. They lend their support to form a working majority on issues with which it agrees

What is the working majority?

In practice the bar is slightly lower than 326 MPs, as Irish Republicans Sinn Fein do not take up their seats in Parliament. They won seven MPs (including all of the border regions in Northern Ireland) so the majority will have to beat 322 MPs.

The resurgent DUP have 10 MPs, so there will be a working majority of seven.

What will the DUP want in return?

This reliance on the DUP will come at a cost – although one which may not be too painful for the Conservatives at least, given their right-wing political similarities.

May is already voluble in her support of the union, but expect a much bigger focus on issues around devolving power to Stormont, the Northern Irish local assembly in Belfast.

She will also have to play a bigger part in getting that assembly up and running once more, after an extended stalemate after talks collapsed in March.

Other areas the DUP could target include issues around the legacy of the Troubles, pensioner benefits, and support of the farming community.

And what about Brexit?

Most importantly of all, the DUP’s attitude to Brexit is uncompromising, if slightly different to the Tories.

One of the key manifesto promises is maintenance of the Common Travel Area, which allows passport-free travel with the Republic of Ireland. The government has already backed this – anything else would risk reigniting the Troubles – but it is unclear how this will work with the Republic still enjoying freedom of movement within the EU.

The detail will be hammered out between the two parties over the coming weeks.

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