Theresa Villiers speaks at the DUP's conference - a further sign of improving unionist-Tory relations
By Matthew Barrett
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I have, in the past, noted the occasional subtle overtures the Conservative leadership gives the Democratic Unionist Party. In the event of another hung parliament in which the Conservatives hold just a few more seats than at present - which, with the collapse of the Lib Dems, could be possible - the Democratic Unionist Party's eight MPs would be an extremely convenient coalition option (indeed, probably the only option, apart from the Lib Dems). They may also be very handy during some of the tougher votes the Coalition faces over the coming two years.
While CCHQ might not yet be thinking of Nigel Dodds as the next Deputy Prime Minister, or considering which department Jeffrey Donaldson would be sent to, Conservatives have clearly been aware of the need to keep friendly relations with the DUP.
The next step in the relationship came this weekend when Theresa Villiers addressed the DUP conference. To my knowledge, she is the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to have addressed the party's conference, and also the first Conservative portfolio holder to do so. In other words, I can find no record of either Owen Paterson or David Lidington, the two most recent Conservative Shadow Secretaries, addressing the conference. In years gone by, Conservatives may well have spoken at UUP conferences, but not the DUP's, so this is significant.
It should be noted that the Labour Shadow Secretary of State was also invited, and also spoke, so the DUP is not exclusively becoming more friendly with the Conservatives. This underlines how important both parties know those eight Ulster MPs may be in 2015.