British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is desperately clinging to power. This blog speculated that he could have used the bounce from the apparently successful G20 summit in London on 2 April to spring a surprise general election, but if that was ever his intention it was torpedoed by the (unrelated) nasty antics of his 'special adviser' Damien McBride.
Most observers now believe that Brown will not call a general election until the very last possible moment – May 2010.
Regardless of when he calls an election, however, the result is not really in doubt. Brown, and his Labour Party, will lose. The Conservative Party will win. Current estimates of the strengths of the two main parties in the UK parliament post-election are in the range; Conservatives 350-374 seats; Labour 200-224 seats. The House of Commons has 646 members, which means that many observers believe that the Tories will probably get an absolute majority.
This scenario presents an enormous challenge for Irish nationalism. For the first time in modern history nationalists and republicans will be faced with a peace-time Tory government in London. It has always been taken for granted that the Tory Party was anti-Irish-nationalist, based on generations of bitter experience. The recent formalising of the relationship between the Tories and the UUP (as the hybrid known as UCUNF) merely makes this explicit. The Tories have clearly chosen sides in Northern Ireland, and that side is unionism.
What impact this will have on politics in Northern Ireland is hard to gauge. The London government will clearly follow a unionist line, dictated to them by their local allies in the UUP. The disruptive effect of the higher authority following the line of a minor party in the NI Executive will be a new element in Northern Irish politics. The power that such a situation will give to the UUP will be enormous – in effect, if they don't get their way in Stormont they could turn to their partners in London to exert influence on, or to baldly countermand, the decisions of the Executive.
Such tactics would have a strongly negative effect on the functioning of the Executive, alienating not just the nationalist parties, but also the DUP. The DUP, let's not forget, nailed their colours to the mast when they supported the Labour Party on the issue of 42-day detention. This was seen very badly by the Tories, who will not forget … or forgive. So a Tory victory will not be welcomed by the DUP any more than by the nationalists. The duration of the Tory administration could see a cooling of relations between London and Belfast. While the DUP, for reasons of unionist obeisance of London rule, may try to present the return of Tory government as 'good for the union', but the fact that the Tories are the bed-fellows of their UUP opponents will make any close relationship difficult.
A perverse effect of the imminent Tory victory could be the gradual alienation of the Ulster nationalists within the DUP from London, and a growing consensus between Ulster nationalism and (northern) Irish nationalism, as both groups come to see London as a negative external influence. It will not turn the DUP into a nationalist party, but it may well turn it into less of a unionist party. The DUP will be outside the Tory tent, and will be viewed as just another Celtic fringe nationalist party. If the DUP start to view themselves in the same light – unwanted by Labour, unwanted by the Tories – and if an alternative frame of reference, that of Northern Irish/Ulster separatism, becomes gradually less contaminated, the longer-term impact could be interesting.