The real winners of this abortive ’emergency government’ could be the SNP

At the time of writing, it looks as if efforts to put together a ‘letter-writing government’ – formed with the sole intention of extending Article 50 and then calling an election – are hitting the buffers.

For all the controversy around the handful of Conservative and ex-Conservative MPs who appear willing to discuss putting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street for that purpose, there aren’t nearly enough of them to offset the ten ex-Labour MPs who won’t countenance installing their former leader.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Stephen Bush estimates that a Corbyn-led ’emergency government’ (the phrasing varies from advocate to advocate) would require 14 Tory rebels just to offset those hold-outs. He then reveals that they can’t even get Dominic Grieve.

As the Labour leadership are extremely unlikely to stand aside to allow a less divisive figure to do the job, the plan looks as if it might be dead in the water. Oddly, the biggest winners of this abortive effort might be the SNP.

Whilst they may no longer hold nearly every seat in Scotland, the parliamentary arithmetic is such that Nicola Sturgeon’s phalanx of Nationalist MPs would be absolutely crucial to any administration capable of outvoting the Conservative/Democratic Unionist alliance in the Commons. Unlike the hole she has dug for herself over independence, the First Minister seems to have used this leverage fairly well.

Unlike the other potential members of the rainbow coalition, the SNP have not ruled out making Jeremy Corbyn the next Prime Minister if that’s what it takes to halt Article 50. This has had several benefits.

First, they have been able to tempt both John McDonnell and, today, Jeremy Corbyn into undermining Labour’s agreed position on the Union and talking up the prospect of a second independence referendum. This has plunged an already-weakened Scottish Labour into civil war, and will likely see its vote squeezed even further as the SNP corral pro-independence voters and unionists consolidate behind Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives.

Second, this stance has allowed Sturgeon to put pressure on Jo Swinson. As the Scottish leader of a left-liberal, pro-EU party, SNP strategists might have worried that a Liberal Democrat revival might further chip away at their post-2014 coalition.

But Swinson’s room for manoeuvre is hindered by the fact that her Party’s main targets are mostly Tory-Lib Dem marginals where Corbyn is toxic. Putting a spotlight on Swinson’s swithering allows Sturgeon to paint the SNP as the best advocates for Scottish Europhiles, at very little cost to herself.

And of course, actually installing Corbyn in Number Ten would allow the Tories to re-run their successful campaign against the spectre of a ‘Lab-Nat Pact’ at the next election, not unhelpful if you think that a government led by Boris Johnson is a booster for independence.

The only possible danger seems to lie in the plan somehow working, and Corbyn entering the election legitimised as Prime Minister and as the hero who thwarted Johnson and his dastardly no-deal plans. But that prospect is probably not keeping the First Minister up at night.

It has now been two years since we first highlighted how the machinations of parliamentary remainers were bolstering those who want to break up the Union. It’s time this truth sank in.

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Henry Hill: Wallace rejects amnesty for Ulster veterans, but wants inquiries restrained

Wallace rejects amnesty for soldiers but wants inquiries curbed

This week Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, revealed that he is opposed to offering an amnesty to members of the Armed Forces who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Whilst arguing that they should receive “the very best legal advice and support”, the former Security Minister is reportedly concerned that any amnesty would also need to be extended to paramilitaries and terrorists. According to the Times, he said:

“We must make sure we don’t let off the hook the murderers that are still out there and need to be hunted down and convicted of the killings that they took part in.”

This will be controversial due to the previous scandal over so-called ‘comfort letters’, which were issued by the Blair Government and are widely viewed to have given a de facto amnesty to IRA terrorists. They came to light after collapsing the trial of John Downey, who was being prosecuted over his role in the Hyde Park bombing.

However, Wallace did offer ex-servicemen some hope. The Daily Mail reports that he doesn’t want any new investigations to proceed unless actual new evidence emerges against individual soldiers. He also stated that he did not intend to allow the history books to be ‘rewritten’, and that the Armed Forces should be proud of what they achieved in Ulster.

This is addressed directly at the concerns of many unionists, who worry that the historical inquiries process is unfairly targeting the Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary and thus bolstering a republican narrative of the Troubles.

Labour’s civil war on the Union deepens

Last week, I wrote about how John McDonnell had opened a rift in the Labour Party over their stance on a second Scottish independence referendum.

In what looked like a fairly shameless bid to woo the SNP, the Shadow Chancellor announced that a Corbyn-led government would not stand in the way of a second referendum.

This sparked huge controversy because McDonnell appeared to be unilaterally re-writing Labour policy on the issue – and cutting Scottish Labour off at the knees to boot.

Although he initially doubled down on his remarks, this week opened with Labour officially ruling out entering into any formal alliance with the Nationalists to oust the Tories, instead committing to governing as a minority government in such circumstances.

If true, this suggests a remarkable amount of strategic incoherence. Such an announcement is unlikely to undo the damage McDonnell has likely done to Labour’s standing with its unionist voters, whilst ruling out an alliance appears to rule out any potential dividend from his actions. Of course, it does invite us to speculate as to what constitutes a ‘formal alliance’…

Meanwhile the Scottish party has condemned the national leadership, and Labour MSPs have vowed to ignore the Shadow Chancellor’s new policy – although left-wing allies of McDonnell hit back at ‘kamikaze unionists’ in a leak to a separatist site. The surprise departure of Brian Roy, the General Secretary of Scottish Labour, added to the turmoil.

On the Tory front, David Mundell has cropped up to suggest that it would be very difficult for the Government to resist legislating for a second referendum in the event that separatist parties won a majority at the 2021 Scottish election. (He is mistaken.) Meanwhile a poll found that only two fifths of Scottish voters think another referendum should be granted in the next five years.

Salmond paid half a million by the Scottish Government

It is often suggested that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP pursue independence so vociferously in part to distract from the hash they are making of governing Scotland. This week provides yet another raft of embarrassing headlines which lend weight to that suspicion.

First, and most shockingly, it emerged that the Scottish Government has paid out almost half a million pounds to Alex Salmond, the former First Minister, over its mishandling of its official inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against him. This money was to cover his legal costs after he mounted a successful legal challenge on the matter.

That case is separate to the criminal case against the former SNP leader, who is charged with two attempted rapes, nine sexual assaults and two indecent assaults. He denies all wrongdoing, but the case remains a time bomb ticking under the Scottish Government – Sturgeon was Salmond’s protege, and it was her administration that presided over the botched inquiry into his conduct.

If that weren’t enough, elsewhere this week we learn that once again the Nationalists’ university fees policy has seen Scottish pupils missing out on places offered to applicants from elsewhere in the United Kingdom; the SNP Health Secretary has announced that an embattled £150 million hospital may not be open by the end of 2020, following concerns about the construction process and reviews of its safety; and a pro-Nationalist business magnate is furious that the Scottish Government may be about to nationalise a shipyard he rescued.

This week in commentary

There has been quite a bit of interesting commentary on Union-related issues this week, so rather than scatter them throughout the rest of the column I’ve collated them here.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Jeremy Warner suggests that Brexit has made Scottish independence more difficult (only two years after ConHome considered that point proven, but still). Rather than be bullish about the implications of this he chooses to finish on a maudlin note, but that’s unionism for you.

From his new vantage point at the Atlantic, the excellent Tom McTague (formerly of Politico) sets out why Brexiteers are right to be deeply concerned about the Irish backstop. The analysis isn’t perfect, but it’s a rare sympathetic take on the pro-UK position.

In the Scotsman, Brian Monteith – now a Brexit Party MEP – suggests that Ruth Davidson’s decisions have imperilled the UK, whilst Paul Hutcheon writes in the Herald that the biggest threat to the Union is Scottish Labour’s collapse.

Finally, Iain Martin has decided that the way to save the UK is radical constitutional reform including devolution to England, a senate, and the rest. As is traditional for advocates of this position, he appears to just assume it will work, and makes no attempt to explain why identical assumptions about the last two decades of the devolution project have all come to nothing. Sigh.

News in Brief:

  • Varadkar ‘opposed to direct rule’ as he prepares to meet Johnson – iNews
  • Controversial cybernat blogger to launch new separatist party – The Times
  • Lib Dems and Greens to join anti-Brexit alliance with Plaid – The Spectator
  • SDLP sparks row after querying Union Flags on Tesco fruit – Belfast Telegraph
  • Scottish Court to hear ‘fast-tracked’ legal challenge to Brexit – FT
  • Ex-Plaid leader criticised over comments on carrying knives – The Sun
  • RBS ‘will move to England’ in the event of independence – The Scotsman
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How Johnson could play the politics of an economic contraction

Yesterday, another of the Brexit Wars’ endless fronts opened up as both sides tried to put their spin on the news that the British economy shrank in the last quarter.

On the one side, Remainers keen to jump on anything which bolsters their view that our departure from the European Union will bring about severe economic disruption. Arrayed against them are Brexiteers who argue that this is either unrelated to Brexit or at least in part due to the previous administration’s botched efforts to get Britain out.

Who is right? On one level, it scarcely matters. Both sides are sufficiently entrenched by this point that it is difficult to imagine the voter who is politically-engaged enough to register a 0.2 per cent contraction and yet sufficiently agnostic on Brexit for it to swing them one way or the other.

For what it’s worth, experts such as Ed Conway of Sky News and Rupert Harrison, until recently chair of the UK Council of Economic Advisers, seem sceptical that yesterday’s figures were the lip of a precipice. Instead, they both seem to expect the economy to grow again in the third quarter (Q3), with the Q2 dip a result of the unwinding of companies’ No Deal planning, which inflated the Q1 figures.

Moreover, the publishing schedule for this economic data means we won’t even find out if the UK has entered a so-called “technical recession”, i.e. two consecutive quarters of contraction, until after October 31.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Government is out of the woods – Conway says that the numbers will be a “challenge” for Sajid Javid to explain, and the Prime Minister won’t want press speculation about economic bad news undercutting his attempt to rejuvenate the Government, and indeed the country, with his new, optimistic style. The UK is also exposed if trading partners on the Continent run into difficulty.

However, there may nonetheless be a few political opportunities in the story.

First, Britain continues to outperform its principle EU rivals, such as France and Germany, on a range of measures, and raising this story with ministers will offer them more opportunities to hammer home this message.

Second, speculation about a recession might lend Boris Johnson more political cover for his clearly-signalled intention to turn on the spending taps. What might once have looked like vulgar pre-election bribes can now be recast, or at least spun, as prudent investments to bolster the economy at a crucial moment. Handy, if you anticipate an imminent election.

Finally, it can bolster the Prime Minister’s push for a decisive resolution on Brexit. Some commentators have noted that certainty around the exit date, even including the possibility of a no-deal exit, is preferable to many businesses than running their stockpiles up and down whilst the Government prevaricates. There is now something to point to which illustrates the economic risks of kicking the can.

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Henry Hill: McDonnell reminds us wherein lies the real threat to the Union

Writing in this morning’s Daily Telegraph, Tom Harris makes the point that the hard left, from which hail both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, has “always been prepared to sacrifice the Union for power”.

This much was obvious before the Shadow Chancellor split his party in two this week over the question of whether or not the Opposition would offer the Scottish National Party a second referendum on independence in exchange for parliamentary support in the House of Commons. Getting Corbyn to sing from the right hymn sheet on the Union has always looked like an uphill struggle for his Scottish comrades.

But McDonnell has gone much further, and much more explicitly, than his boss. Indeed, as Jonathan Freedland points out, he’s gone further than he conceivably needed to. When faced with a backlash, he doubled down.

Why might this be? Well, for starters its worth remembering that Harris might be mistaken when he says that the left is prepared to ‘sacrifice’ the Union. They are very often instinctively hostile to it, regarding it as an imperialist construct. Some, such as George Galloway, do draw a vehement distinction between Irish nationalism and Scottish, but that isn’t a universal position.

The second factor is that the Shadow Chancellor might have cast a cold eye over Labour’s fortunes in Scotland and concluded that they are unlikely to make a significant contribution to the likelihood of a (Corbyn-led) Labour Government. Wooing the SNP, with their dozens of MPs, might look like a better bet – and folding on a second independence referendum is one of the biggest carrots he could offer them.

‘Corbyn-led’ is important. With Jo Swinson today declaring that the Liberal Democrats won’t help put the Labour leader into Number Ten, his only route there – absent a smashing general election victory, which seems unlikely – lies through the Nationalists.

But this strategy, if such it is, contains an inherent contradiction. If Labour’s best, or perhaps only, route to power lies through the support of a substantial number of Scottish MPs of one hue or another, Scottish independence logically implies handing the Right a substantial advantage in the rest of the UK.

A few possibilities suggest themselves: McDonnell hasn’t entirely thought this through; he thinks a second referendum would be won by the unionists; or he plans in some fashion to entrench Labour’s position south of the border in the process of delivering the referendum.

But there is a fourth option. Just as David Cameron offered an EU referendum on the assumption that the Lib Dems would block it, so too might the Shadow Chancellor be dangling an independence one in front of the SNP in anticipation that he wouldn’t, in the end, be able to deliver it – due this time not to formal coalition negotiations, but a backbench revolt.

Make no mistake, this is another acid test for Labour MPs. On Europe, they have made much noise about fidelity to their Party’s official stance, rather than their leader’s more ambiguous position. There is nothing to prevent them doing the same here.

Hundreds of Members of Parliament standing in solidarity with their Scottish comrades and indicating their refusal to collaborate with McDonnell’s bid to trade the United Kingdom for separatist support would be a powerful moment… if they choose to take that stand. Will Labour MPs stand by their leadership, or their Scottish fellows and their country?

In the meantime, his calculation about Scottish Labour’s weakness, and response to it, may become self-fulfilling. At a time when Ruth Davidson is caught in an awkward strategic position over Brexit and Boris Johnson, she has now been handed a powerful card. Consolidating the pro-Union vote is what delivered her victories in 2016 and 2017, and McDonnell has just sent Labour’s remaining voters – who lean unionist – a very good reason to give the Tories another look.

This row is also a useful reminder that, for all the excitement over a single margin-of-error poll lead for independence, the much more concrete threat to the Union comes from those forces – Labour and Remain – prepared to actively collaborate with the separatists and pander to nationalist sentiment in order to try to wield the supposed fragility of the Union to their advantage.

News in Brief:

  • Sturgeon accused of ‘complacency’ as exam passes fall – Daily Telegraph
  • Northern Irish Office loses key advisor at the wrong moment – News Letter
  • How the Left lost Wales – UnHerd
  • Scottish Tories attack SNP over prisoner voting – Daily Telegraph
  • Anger over removal of Queen’s portrait from Stormont – The Times
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