Tory/UUP pact – tensions in the shadow cabinet

Ahead of the final Northern Ireland leaders' debate on the BBC tonight, the electoral alliance between the Tories and UUP is once again under intense scrutiny.

Ahead of the final Northern Ireland leaders’ debate on the BBC tonight, the electoral alliance between the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists has once again come in for intense scrutiny. In his first and last trip to Northern Ireland during the election campaign, David Cameron used a visit to Belfast to drum up support for his candidates standing under the Ulster Conservative and Unionist (UCU) banner.

At the same time, however, his shadow business secretary Ken Clarke was giving an interview with, in which he said of a possible hung parliament:

“What we’re plainly headed for would be a great deal of squabbling, with small parties given disproportionate influence, trying to manoeuvre advantages for themselves before they allow a Conservative government to get on with the job.

Clarke’s words seem divorced from the reality of his party’s alliance with the Ulster Unionists, and begs the question of who is managing what the UUP’s former deputy leader Lord Kilcooney called a “mongrel relationship”.

On the subject of a potential Conservative minority government, The Daily Telegraph reports:

The Tories are confident an informal understanding with unionist MPs from Ulster could secure Mr Cameron a safe passage with his key early Commons battles, including getting a first Queen’s Speech and Budget passed.”

In such a situation are we to believe that given Clarke’s statement, Cameron would somehow expect the smaller parties in Northern Ireland to support his budget and Queen’s speech without any concessions to them? In March, David Cameron found himself in the embarrassing situation of being aligned with the only party in Northern Ireland who actively opposed the devolution of policing and justice; shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Paterson had said:

“The Conservative Party has been consistent in its support for the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

Cameron declared in 2008 that he wanted to see Ulster Unionists in the cabinet – but what of the UCU’s policy on policing and justice? As an electoral alliance, which would see both UUP and Conservatives sharing the same Whip in Westminster, the UUP seem to have dictated to the Tories what their policy should be, surely an example of, as Ken Clarke put it, giving smaller parties “disproportionate influence” over Tory policy.

In its manifesto for Northern Ireland, the UCU clearly states:

“Conservatives and Unionists will continue to support academic selection in Northern Ireland.”

However, speaking in 2007, David Willetts, now the shadow minister for universities and skills, said

We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright, poor kids. This is a widespread belief but we just have to recognise that there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.”

Given Willetts’s words, are the people of Northern Ireland to assume that the Ulster Conservative and Unionist party, the brainchild of David Cameron, is committed to an education system based on academic selection which David Willetts himself says entrenches rather than spreads advantage? It is yet another example of the Ulster Unionists gaining the sort of disproportionate influence over Conservative policy that Ken Clarke so fears.

In the ultimate snub to Clarke’s concerns, the Financial Times last week reported that the Conservatives were looking to forge some sought of agreement with the smaller parties in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to keep the Lib Dems and Labour out.

Speaking at the launch of the UCU manifesto, William Hague had said that the purpose of the electoral pact between the Tories and UUP was to bring Northern Ireland “back in the mainstream of British politics”. However, with policy on policing and justice and academic selection different in Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, how can the Conservatives and UUP be claiming to bring Northern Ireland into the mainstream?

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