Those who don’t read the Daily Telegraph may not have seen this piece, suggesting a Conservative-Unionist alliance (with the DUP as well as the UUP) after the election, assuming it produces a Parliament with the Tories only a few seats short of a majority. The price would be to shelter Northern Ireland from budget cuts through the Barnett formula.
Such a policy, if the Tories were to adopt it, would seriously undermine the idea of a Union. It would reinforce the existing (and huge) disparity in levels of public spending in Northern Ireland and in other parts of the UK, which has been declining in recent years. It would reduce the incentives for the devolved government to reform public services (which have largely missed out on the reforms of the 1980s, never mind those of the 1990s or under New Labour), or to bolster other aspects of Northern Ireland’s economy. And it would be impossible to reconcile with the needs-based approach to funding that Cameron has promised in Wales (though, curiously, not in Scotland), reported in the Western Mail here.
More generally, the Conservative approach to the Union since Cameron became leader has been to show a high degree of flexibility in managing an asymmetric and disparate state. In some ways that is both good pragmatic politics, as well as responding normatively to the different needs and interests of the various parts of the UK. But part of the problem of the devolved UK is that there are serious difficulties, even dangers, in running a state as a sequences of bilateral deals, in which the shared experiences of people in the state are limited. There’s a question of how far you can twist the elastic. Twisting it that far for Northern Ireland simply invites further twisting elsewhere, and rewards those who can shout loudest and act in the most aggressive fashion. For a party committed to a strong defence of the Union who boast in their manifesto ‘we will not put the Union at risk’, it’s a high-risk strategy.