This past week Britain’s Conservatives, the wounded but still most sizeable political party in the U.K.’s House of Commons, sealed a nakedly short-term pact with a handful of representatives from the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
In return for DUP votes that will help pass key measures in parliament, Theresa May’s Conservatives promised roughly £1 billion ($1.3 billion) in extra spending over two years for various projects in Northern Ireland, population 1.8 million.
The British press – never shy about using witty but caustic headlines – slammed the deal and Theresa May in equal measure, describing it as a “squalid…£1bn bribe to crackpots” that had been sealed with a “handshake of shame” by a leader “held to ransom.”
The conventional wisdom in Westminster – and indeed Brussels – is that May gambled by calling a snap general election in March, and lost. Her ostensible pretext for calling the election was to win a stronger mandate for Brexit negotiations. She would theoretically command greater respect from her European peers during talks as a prime minister that had been democratically elected by a majority of citizens, rather than just anointed by her party.
And at home, a larger parliamentary majority could also help her face down or simply ignore potentially recalcitrant members of her own party, who might take a different view on Brexit-related policy positions during important votes.
In the first few roll-calls since the opening of the latest parliamentary session, May’s measures have squeaked through by a tiny margin, but the government has been forced to make some significant and embarrassing concessions to stave off criticism about its new political bedfellows, whose social policies in particular are viewed unfavourably by many British liberals.
During recent reporting visits to Brussels and Luxembourg, several interviews with European leaders – from EU commissioners to Baltic premiers to Teutonic finance ministers – have revealed a certain level of Schadenfreude directed at May’s recent electoral and parliamentary travails.
A major challenge for her ever since the referendum – and for as long as she can maintain her currently tenuous grip on the keys to Number 10 Downing Street – has been the requirement for each public utterance on Brexit to address several very different constituencies at once.
There is the emotive domestic audience that seems eager to assert unrealistically hardline controls over U.K. immigration policy; the significant minority of British voters that would prefer not to exit the EU at all and hunts assiduously for any indication that the self-titled “Project Leave” will somehow crumble; the businesses and investors across the country who are frustrated and even exasperated at the lack of clarity about the government’s end-game; and finally the politicians and bureaucrats across the English Channel who frequently reference their unified negotiating positions but cannot help themselves – it seems – from sending occasionally mixed messages.