The Conservatives and Scotland: Dangerous Game

Is David Cameron setting himself up for a fall with his attacks on the SNP?

What profits a man who gains the whole world but loses his soul? That question is concentrating more perceptive Conservative minds as the Tories step up their rhetoric about a possible Labour-SNP deal. Some senior party figures have already spoken out against questioning the legitimacy of an SNP-backed government, warning this could anger Scottish voters just months after the referendum on independence.

But now, it looks as if the Conservative Party’s tough line on the SNP is tarnishing it in the eyes of some other, potentially quite important people. In a sharp intervention yesterday, Nigel Dodds, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party at Westminster, warned of the dangers of fuelling "nationalist paranoia" in Scotland. Dodds also tore into the Conservative ‘English Votes for English Laws’ plan, stating bluntly that the Commons could not be used as an "ersatz, part-time English Assembly".

At least one political commentator claimed the DUP have been ‘amazed’ by Conservative comments on Scotland for some time, and the party’s leaders may be nervous about what their voters would make of them supporting a mainland party perceived to have whipped up sectional tensions.

However, the row over Scotland merely reignites longstanding suspicions of David Cameron's Conservatives within the DUP’s high command. The party's leader Peter Robinson and his lieutenants were enraged by the pact the Tories struck with their unionist rivals, the Ulster Unionist Party, at the last election. And while that spat has passed, the DUP remains well to the left of the Conservatives on issues important to its working class base, such as welfare.

Why does all this matter? Because even if the Conservatives do come out from this election as the largest party – say on about 300 seats – it is almost certain their current coalition allies, the Lib Dems, will not be able to muster more than 30. The two parties would need around 323 seats for a basic majority, but would probably require the regular support of the DUP to help negate internal rebellions and absences. The ‘strong, stable government’ that Cameron and his ministers promise gets that much harder to deliver if the DUP won’t play ball.

There’s also one more reason David Cameron might not want to alienate the DUP ahead of post-election horsetrading. Cast aside the Northern Irish party, and the Tories could become much more dependent on the small band of UKIP MPs set to enter Parliament next week. Like UKIP, the DUP is keen on an EU referendum. But unlike UKIP, it would probably not try and wreck the Prime Minister’s finely-tuned timetable for holding such a vote. By banging on about the SNP, David Cameron may be narrowing his options in a way that ultimately endangers his premiership. 

Photograph: Nigel Dodds

Julian

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