What can Cameron offer unionists of any ilk and what can he give them in return? If the Guardian exclusive is right, he’ll try to ditch the conventions and claim victory straight away, if the Cons emerge as the largest single party. What’s the threshold for going it alone or forming a coalition? The truth is nobody knows. Nudging 300 seats feels right for a minority government, 20 or 30 less seems different.
With 300, some level of support from 7 to 10 unionists of whatever kind would come in handy. The choice for unionists is easier than might have been even a week ago: to back Cameron or not. It doesn’t look likely that they’ll have to chose between Labour and the Conservatives. They’re unlikely to hold the balance of power; instead they may be invited to make life easier for a Conservative government. Cameron obviously thinks a late dash is worthwhile – whether to give a last minute boost to the Uncunf campaign or looking ahead , to put some credit in the bank with Ucunf’s’ immediate opponents the DUP.
According to the advance of his delayed speech in the Bel Tel, Cameron will do a repair job after the unfortunate impression he created that NI was first in line for public sector cuts. He’s also talking about creating an enterprise zone with lower corporation tax.
There are three big issues here
First the Tories are already talking about a general lowering the headline rate from 28% to 25% and from 21% to 20 % for small businesses.
Two, could NI hope for a still lower rate to match the Republic’s 12.5%? The implications of a differential tax rate for one small part of the UK are serious and as far as I can see, largely unexamined. I’m sure the Treasury loathes the idea, and would fear the break out of a bidding war throughout the UK, not to mention wholesale disaffection with the tax itself. The Executive might be better to make a joint case with the Executives in Scotland and Wales, as Alex Salmond has been suggesting.
Third, is a lower rate such a great panacea.? The Varney report rejected it. Lower tax implies the cancellation or curtailment of investment grants. Invest NI strategy would have to be recast.
Politically, a lot would have to taken on trust, however Cameron pitches it. It doesn’t sound the sort of deal that can be patched up in 24 hours.
A final intriguing thought for the future. If the DUP and any UU who might to get elected agree to support the Conservatives at Westminster, might this read across to setting a a new course for unionism at Stormont?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London