As the latest political crisis in Northern Ireland deepens, it looks increasingly likely that James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State, will in less than a week have no choice but to call a snap election in the Province.
This for several reasons poses something of a dilemma for the Conservative Party, which contests elections in Ulster. Or if not a dilemma, at least an important decision: how hard should the Party campaign for Stormont this time?
I’ve always supported the Conservatives’ principled decision to stand in Northern Ireland. Voters there deserve the opportunity to vote for, or at least pass judgement on, the parties that form the national governments in Westminster. This may be especially true when our Party is the one overseeing Brexit.
But to date this engagement has been rather half-hearted, with local members left to it. Last summer I urged Theresa May to embrace the Party’s commitment to Ulster and actually campaign there during devolved elections. National figures are the principle asset the Northern Irish Conservatives have that their much bigger local rivals do not, and without national support the prospects of their breaking through are slim.
However, these are not the only considerations which will weigh in the minds of Party strategists when they decide whether to commit to the contest.
As we’ve written before, the relationship between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party has been strengthening ever since the Brexit vote. The DUP’s decision to back Brexit means it can’t simply complain about the process, and has a very strong incentive to cooperate with the Government to make it work. It also has eight MPs whom the Tory whips can currently depend upon.
Left to its own devices, it looks as if the old, familial relationship between mainland and Northern Irish unionism might be slowly re-knitting itself. CCHQ will be understandably reluctant to rock that particular boat.
If the Party do decide to give the DUP a clear run, there’ll be no need for anything as tangible as a pact. They can simply allow the local Tories to run a campaign at their usual strength. Without the benefit of high-profile Conservative support, which lifts the Ulster Tories in general elections, they’re unlikely to put a dent in the DUP.