It would perhaps be the most unlikely same-sex partnership in politics. Arlene Foster, of the Northern Irish DUP, and Theresa May, the Conservative prime minister – two bloody difficult, devout Christians bound together by unforeseen circumstances and a thirst for power. But would it be a match made in heaven, or a marriage shorter than Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries'?
The recent election result took politicos by surprise. With the UK having no clear government for the second time since 2010, Theresa May found that she may have finally done something naughtier than running through fields of wheat. Her decision to call an election lost the Conservatives their majority and produced no obvious winner. Though the Tories still had the most seats, no one party had enough MPs to be able to pass any laws.
Over a week later, and the result is still uncertain – as is May’s future. If she stays leader of the Conservative Party, the most likely arrangement is a 'supply agreement' between them and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who have the 10 seats needed to give the Tories a measly majority of two.
There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether such an agreement is possible and, given the DUP’s track record, perhaps it’s better if it isn’t. We still don’t know what the price for the DUP's support of the Tories would be – and apart from their dislike for hard Brexit, most of their social and environmental policy is reminiscent of the 1950s (or worse, of Donald Trump). They are anti-abortion under any circumstance, have a questionable record on LGBT issues, and don’t seem to believe that climate change is a manmade phenomenon.
A supply agreement is where one or more parties promise to support (or tolerate) the governing party. They commit to approving the all-important Queen's Speech (scheduled for tomorrow) to kick off a new session of Parliament, and the annual Budget to keep things running. If it is possible, this may be enough to allow the Conservatives to cling onto the keys of Number 10 in exchange for some policy rewards for the DUP.
Surprisingly, this kind of shit show – where there is no single majority party and two or more opposing ones are instead forced to work it out – is not rare. Nearly two-thirds of EU countries’ governments need some kind of ‘propping up’, whether through coalition or less formal arrangements. Some last longer than others; success is dependent on a range of factors, including how strong the majority is, whether the coalition can withstand internal squabbles, and if it can agree on a policy agenda.
An underrated factor crucial for multi-party government success – or even existence – is the personalities of the leaders. As anyone who’s been forced into doing a collaborative project at work or university knows, it’s hard to work with people you don’t know or don’t like. Likewise, if the two party leaders don’t get on, creating a stable government will be particularly challenging.
One of the reasons that the 2010 coalition lasted a full five years (against all odds) was because Cameron and Clegg got on. In fact, they’d bonded even before the election, unintentionally getting left in a room together at the 2009 Supreme Court opening as leaders of the opposition. In a BBC documentary, Cameron revealed that “they left Nick and me alone in this room together for 45 minutes [and] we just talked about politics… I think that helped [because] I knew he was a reasonable person”.
It’s no secret that Cameron and Clegg got on well, although several senior Lib Dems have previously told me that the beginning of their political marriage was much cosier than the end.
May is notoriously distrustful of anyone except her closest allies.
Arlene Foster and Theresa May have undoubtedly met, if not on the campaign trail then before, while May was home secretary and Foster was first minister of Northern Ireland. Their relationship, however, will be by no means close. May is notoriously distrustful of anyone except her closest allies and keeps a closed controlling team, a weakness that likely cost her a majority. As they’re about to embark on the biggest collaborative project of their lives, this might need to change.
The two have some things in common – both are women in a male-dominated arena; they both grew up attending single-sex grammar schools, and they both have a penchant for designer shoes. But as nice as Louboutins are, they’re not a good basis for a relationship.
Arlene Foster was born and raised in Northern Ireland. When she was eight, IRA terrorists came to her home, looking for her policeman father, and shot him in the head. He survived another 32 years despite his injuries, but tragedy struck again when she was 16 and the IRA bombed her school bus. Naturally, these experiences stuck with her, and many attribute her tough, determined character to them.
May also encountered tragedy when her father, a Church of England vicar, died from injuries sustained in a car crash, and her mother – who had multiple sclerosis – died only months later.
May remembers her upbringing as being focused around the Church, with a father who wasn’t always around – although she says she still feels hugely privileged to have had such a childhood. May’s university friends told BBC News that they “cannot remember a time when she did not have political ambitions” and though her political career started with stuffing envelopes at a local Conservative association when she was 12, she became a councillor in 1986 while also a financial consultant, and was elected to Parliament nine years later. In 2002, she became the first female party chairman, and in 2010 the second female home secretary.
Arlene has been described as a 'Strictly Come Dancing fan… who sings in the car at the top of her voice'.
Arlene Foster has also been a rising star. After studying law at Queen’s University, Belfast, she worked as a lawyer before entering politics – originally through the Ulster Unionist Party, from which she resigned in 2004 after opposing the Good Friday Agreement and arguing it gave too many concessions to the IRA. She joined the DUP shortly after, quickly climbing through the ranks to become leader of the Party, and the first minister of Northern Ireland– another first for a woman.
Unlike Arlene, who has three children, Theresa has none – a source of much private unhappiness that was cruelly thrown into the limelight by fellow Tory Andrea Leadsom in their (short-lived) battle for leadership. While Arlene’s ministerial car is known to stop by the local chippy after a long night, Theresa enjoys cooking, and owns over a hundred cookbooks – favouring Ottolenghi. May is mature, smart and experienced – but clearly lacking in charisma and warmth. Arlene, in contrast, has been described as a “Strictly Come Dancing fan… who sings in the car at the top of her voice” by her local paper, The Impartial Reporter.
Despite their many differences, May and Arlene are both two bloody difficult – or rather, tough – women, and have had experience of unlikely political partnerships – May through the 2010 coalition, and Arlene from having spent several years in coalition with the DUP’s long-term political opponents, Sinn Féin.
Both need this deal – Theresa to maintain government, Arlene to influence it – and they may work harder than most to overcome the initial divide in their personality and policy. Their ‘strong and stable’ natures may mean that they have more in common than Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, at least.
Samantha Magnus is a consultant at freuds