Negotiators on the deal between Theresa May and the Democratic Unionist party aimed at sustaining a minority Conservative government into Brexit talks are hoping to reach an agreement by Tuesday, DUP sources have indicated.
It could be finalised as the deadline also looms for the DUP, Sinn Fein and the other Northern Ireland parties to find an agreement of their own to restored devolved power sharing in Belfast.
As the prime minister struggles with mounting complex problems, including party splits over the terms on which to leave the EU and talk of a possible leadership challenge, Downing Street has remained tight-lipped on any proposed “confidence and supply” deal, instead saying it will be announced when it is signed and sealed.
The Guardian understands that the crux of the Tory-DUP deal in London rests mainly on an economic package for Northern Ireland including increased capital spending on health and education, the granting of special lower corporation tax status for the region and the possible abolition in the province of air passenger duty tax.
One controversial element that the DUP wants built into the deal is the extension of the Military Covenant to Northern Ireland. The covenant promises to give priority medical treatment, and special help with housing and school places for children of former and current members of the armed services.
Sinn Fein has opposed the extension of the covenant to Northern Ireland, given the British Army’s role in the Troubles. But Irish government sources on Sunday said they were “reasonably optimistic” that aside from the Tory-DUP deal the Stormont-based parties could also form their own deal ahead of the 29 June deadline on devolution talks. “It’s still game on,” one Irish source said.
With the deal appearing to be edging closer to completion over lengthy talks, it was still facing criticism even within the Conservative party. Lord Patten, a former party chairman, called the DUP “toxic” and warned that any agreement would look as if the Conservatives have become “nasty” again if it was too favourable to Northern Ireland.
Patten told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “The DUP is a toxic brand and the Conservative party has got itself back in to the situation where there’s a danger of it looking like the ‘nasty party’, to borrow from Theresa May. What the DUP want to do is to sell their votes at every opportunity, and this on the assumption that somehow Northern Ireland has been disadvantaged by public spending over the years. I mean, tell that to the Marines, Northern Ireland has got a lot of public spending over the years.”
“Every vote you will have to find some way of paying for it and then explain to the Scots and the Welsh and people in the north-east why they can’t have the same thing too,” he said.
Patten said there was little prospect of the DUP bringing down the government because it would not risk allowing Jeremy Corbyn to gain power.
“If there isn’t an agreement with the DUP, are the DUP going to bring down a Conservative government in order to bring in Mr Corbyn, who has a certain relationship with the IRA in the past? “Of course they’re not,” he added.
Westminster sources said May’s team have grown increasingly exasperated with the negotiations and with the way they have been briefed to the media. “Someone is feeding a ‘hopes rise, hopes fade’ narrative which does no one any good. It keeps the DUP at the centre of the story but to what end?” the source asked.
Responding to the DUP’s claims that a deal could come by Tuesday, a Downing Street spokesman said talks are ongoing. “When we have a deal, we will publish it,” he said.
With uncertainty still remaining about the government’s parliamentary support, the question of Theresa May’s future was still under intense discussion on Sunday. Senior Conservatives declined to rule out ever standing for the party’s leadership, adding to the speculation about May’s leadership since the general election when the Conservatives lost an overall majority.
Brexit secretary David Davis did not deny reports that colleagues had urged him to stand for the leadership in a private meeting, but told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that any such move would have a catastrophic effect on EU negotiations.
Priti Patel, the international development secretary, declined to rule herself out of being the next leader of the Conservatives but disagreed with suggestions that May would not be the party’s leader at the next election.
Asked whether she would want to lead the party, Patel told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I am talking about getting on and doing a good job.”
Conservative former minister Ken Clarke, who is in his 47th year as an MP, told Sky’s Sophy Ridge the current state of the Tory party is unlike anything he has seenduring his parliamentary career.
“I have seen nothing like this,” he said. “You can make some comparisons with the late 1970s, you can make a few comparisons with the Major government where we didn’t have a majority by the time we finished, but the background – Brexit, the economy, changing demands on public service – there’s been nothing like this at all. Quite unique.”
Labour, attempting to capitalise on the instability in the Conservative party, is planning to table a series of amendments to the Queen’s speech by Tuesday. There is speculation that the party could work closely with the Lib Dems and the SNP to keep key parts of EU legislation.
As the deadline looms for the Stormont talks, there were calls from church leaders in Northern Ireland for all parties to settle on a power-sharing deal. In a letter signed by a wide range of church leaders, the five main parties were urged to consider the good of the whole region before rejecting any deal.
“While we acknowledge the complexities involved in reaching an agreement, we want to express our continued concern that, without an agreed budget and with no executive ministers in place, the most vulnerable are at greater risk, while crucial decisions on education, health and welfare are not being taken,” the letter read.
“Furthermore, with no Executive there has been comparatively little co-ordinated local input into the Brexit discussions and even less detailed preparation for what lies ahead for Northern Ireland and the island as a whole.”
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