Henry Hill: Brexit Party set for strong showings in Wales and Scotland

In both countries, the votes of both Labour and especially the Conservatives have been squeezed between the Brexiteers and the separatists.

As the country goes to the polls for today’s European elections, one of the biggest questions is how well the Brexit Party will fare.

It looks set for an extraordinary showing in England. Whilst the range of results offered by different pollsters is fairly wide, it seems likely that Nigel Farage’s party will match or exceed UKIP’s strong showing in 2014, despite only having been in existence for a matter of weeks.

But what about the rest of the country?

The Welsh political class have always been intensely irritated that their voters backed Leave in the 2016 referendum. It undercut both a well-prepared grievance narrative about the Principality getting ‘dragged out’ of the EU by England and a broader, flattering image of Wales as an inherently ‘progressive’ nation.

Of course, the Cardiff Bay devocrats didn’t let the reality of Wales’ political choices knock them off script for long. But the underlying strength of Welsh Euroscepticism has refused to go away, and looks set to deliver a truly extraordinary set of election results this week.

Professor Roger Awan-Scully, the doyen of Welsh political polling, has the figures: the latest Political Barometer poll puts the Brexit Party on 36 per cent, which would give it two of Wales’ four European Parliament seats. The other two would be taken by Plaid Cymru and Labour, with the Nationalists knocking the latter into third place.

(The Tories are sixth-placed, on just seven per cent of the vote. A spotlight was put on their woes this week when a Welsh association chairmen wrote on this site about his support for the Brexit Party – and then refused CCHQ’s demand he resign.)

Were Farage’s team able to carry this momentum through to the next Assembly election, they would scoop 13 seats, versus just seven for the Conservatives. This would put paid to any lingering Tory hopes of a two-party coalition with Plaid. Farage has already made sure to impress his authority on the new group after UKIP’s was plagued by infighting.

Then there’s Scotland. There has apparently been something of a conspiracy of silence around the Brexit Party’s prospects north of the border. As in Wales, its strength undercuts the stories devocrats tell themselves about Scotland and, as with devo-scepticism, it is therefore under-represented in the media.

Nonetheless, they look to be set to take second place, and are the only party other than the SNP which currently look guaranteed to win at least one MEP. According to this final projection from Election Maps UK they may even win two, the same number as the SNP.

The final two seats in that scenario go to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with the former once again recording a miserably low position in a territory it once dominated. As in Wales the rise of the Brexit Party appears to have squeezed the Tories (although this projection does show them picking up a seat despite the former getting two).

Scottish Conservatives have attacked the Brexit Party for wooing Scottish Nationalists, with Farage calling on ‘genuine nationalists’ to support his party and arguing that Scotland wouldn’t be properly independent inside the EU. This makes tactical sense, as roughly a third of independence supporters backed Brexit and they’re utterly unrepresented by either the SNP or the Greens, the two formally separatist parties.

Whether this stance is bad for the Union isn’t yet clear. It would certainly be problematic if the Brexit Party’s ambivalence on the subject survived the formalisation of its policy agenda ahead of a general election. In the short term, however, there is definitely an upside to a party which could potentially peel a chunk of voters away from the Nationalists, especially in pursuit of a policy which (as I have argued previously) is good for the Union.

As for Northern Ireland, the Brexit Party is not standing there so as not to undermine the Democratic Unionists. Ulster uses a different electoral system for its MEPs, so with Sinn Fein and the DUP still locked for one seat each all the energy is concentrated in a tense three-way battle between the SDLP, Ulster Unionists, and centrist Alliance Party for the final seat.

Until now the forces of capital-U Unionism have held two out of three of Northern Ireland’s MEPs, a fact which seems likely to change this week. The significance will depend in part on who takes it: the Alliance is pitching to pro-Remain unionist voters with an explicit argument that opposing Brexit need not mean forsaking allegiance to the United Kingdom.

Henry Hill: Mordaunt signals support for extending legal protection to Ulster veterans

Also: Davidson urges Tories to work harder for Euros; Bradley branded ‘unfit to govern’ by abuse victims; SNP turmoil deepens; and more!

Mordaunt on manoeuvres as she demands protection for Ulster veterans

The Defence Secretary has burnished her leadership pitch this week with a call for new legal protections for ex-servicemen to be extended to those who served in Northern Ireland, the Times reports.

Penny Mordaunt this week unveiled new laws which would place time limits on troops’ exposure to prosecution over conduct whilst on active service overseas. However, at present this will not cover veterans of the Troubles, and the Northern Irish Office is pressing ahead with proposals for a new historical investigator.

Excluding Ulster veterans has angered many Conservative MPs, with the Daily Mail warning that ministers were risking a ‘mutiny’. The Prime Minister has been accused of ‘appeasing Sinn Fein‘ in order to support the NIO’s fumbling efforts to restore devolution in the Province.

Legal protection for current and former soldiers has managed to sneak up on some commentators, but could well be one of the major threads of the upcoming leadership contest. Just this morning the three main centre-right newspapers (the Times, the Sun, and the Daily Telegraph) have all published leaders on the subject.

In other news, Mike Penning has called for Parliament to honour Captain Robert Nairac, his former commanding officer, who was murdered by the IRA during the Troubles.

Davidson criticises Tories for failing to campaign properly in the Euros

The leader of the Scottish Conservatives has urged her colleagues to put more energy into their campaign for the imminent European elections, according to the Times.

Ruth Davidson’s intervention is being interpreted as an attack on those high-profile Tory MPs, such as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, she perceives to be putting more effort into their leadership pitches than the Party’s electoral efforts. Johnson this week accused supporters of a second referendum of bolstering the SNP.

Her intervention comes after a poll last month placed the Conservatives in fourth place in Scotland – whilst one published this morning found the Brexit Party in second place north of the border, and the Tories in single figures. Nigel Farage’s national campaign tour is rolling into Edinburgh on Friday, with one candidate stressing that the police must not allow mobs to disrupt his event as they have in the past.

Davies to step aside as Montgomeryshire MP at the next election

Glyn Davies, the Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, has announced his intention to step down from Parliament at the next election, ITV News reports.

Since first capturing the seat in 2010 – memorably ousting the Liberal Democrats’ Lembit Öpik – he has built up a comfortable majority of over 9,000. He wants to give his successor an opportunity to establish themselves in the seat ahead of the next election, which is scheduled for 2022 but likely to take place rather sooner than that.

Bradley branded ‘unfit to govern’ by Ulster abuse victims

It’s been another week of bad press for the Northern Irish Secretary (is there any other sort?) after she was accused of using abuse victims as a “political football” in her bid to get Stormont back up and running.

The News Letter reports that survivors of abusive children’s homes run by the state and religious orders have claimed Karen Bradley is unfit for her post after she refused to authorise outstanding compensation payments. They say their redress is being held hostage in an effort to ‘blackmail’ local parties, and Arlene Foster has branded the move a “disgrace”.

Sam McBride, a local journalist, has also highlighted Bradley’s inconsistent approach to her powers, and questioned the moral and PR merit of declining to compensate abuse victims whilst legislating to appoint members of the Livestock & Meat Commission.

Cherry refuses to back down as SNP infighting deepens

Tensions inside the Scottish National Party continue to boil over as mounting pressure over its independence strategy and Alex Salmond’s upcoming trial erode its once-legendary discipline.

Joanna Cherry, the Nationalists’ home affairs spokesperson at Westminster, has mounted what the Daily Telegraph calls an “extraordinary attack” on party colleagues. She claims to have been the victim of a smear campaign over allegations of bullying in her office.

In an extremely illuminating column in the Times, Kenny Farquharson sets out why Cherry is the focus of the current row. She stands opposed to Nicola Sturgeon on all four of the SNP’s internal fault lines: on independence strategy; on left/right economics; on transgender issues; and on Salmond and his legacy.

With speculation mounting that Sturgeon may be compelled to step aside as First Minister either before or as a result of her predecessors trial (“on two charges of attempted rape, nine of sexual assault, two of indecent assault and one of breach of the peace”) Cherry is widely perceived as a possible Salmondite contender for the leadership.

But allegations of bullying might lead to her falling foul of the SNP’s candidate vetting process as and when she tried to make the necessary jump to Holyrood. Little wonder then that she has offered to review it – or that Sturgeon has turned her down.

In other news, the Nationalists’ also face a fine from the Information Commissioner’s Office after sending tens of thousands of Euro election mailshots to the wrong addresses.

Reckless leads four AMs in defection to the Brexit Party

The Brexit Party has gained its first foothold in Welsh politics after Guido revealed that four AMs have formally declared their intention to align with it in the Welsh Assembly.

Joining Mark Reckless, who had previously been sitting with the Conservatives, are two ex-UKIP independents and another AM who is leaving UKIP’s decimated Assembly caucus. Reckless’ party-hopping has attracted some rather arch coverage in the Welsh media.

Wales’ centre-left parties have attacked the proposed group for giving the Brexit Party “a political credibility it has not earned through the ballot box” – although that line of criticism doesn’t appear likely to hold much water after the European elections.

Conservative candidates selected for Colne Valley and Portsmouth South

Both have chosen candidates with previous experience of their constituencies, which will stand them in good stead in the event of an early election.

Underneath the drama gripping the top of the Conservative Party, CCHQ’s candidate selection drive grinds on. This week two seats announced theirs: Portsmouth South and Colne Valley.

Both of these were lost to Labour at the 2017 election, and both by narrow margins (just over 1,500 and under 1,000 votes respectively). They will therefore be absolutely crucial seats if the Party is to have any hope of improving its position next time out, whenever that may be.

Colne Valley has taken what is these days the slightly unusual step of reselecting Jason McCartney, who previously sat as the Conservative MP for the seat from 2010 to 2017. This means that they have a candidate with a deep well of local experience and the better part of a decades’ worth of accumulated name recognition, which might be critical if the Party ends up fighting a general election in the near future.

Portsmouth South have likewise chosen a candidate with a pre-existing bank of local credit in the form of Donna Jones, a former leader of Portsmouth City Council. Flick Drummond, who previously held the seat from 2015 to 2017, decided not to re-stand. Jones has pledged to be a ‘voice in Parliament’ for business and the Royal Navy if returned.

Theoretically, the next election isn’t scheduled until 2022, meaning newly-selected candidates should have three years to work the seat. Judging by their selections, Conservative associations aren’t betting on that timescale.

Farage’s latest row with the BBC probably suits both sides

Marr’s interview has shaped the news agenda whilst the Brexit Party leader has another opportunity to burnish his outsider status.

This morning’s papers carry the story of Nigel Farage’s fury at the BBC’s Andrew Marr for the manner in which the latter interviewed him on his show yesterday.

The Brexit Party leader has attacked the presenter’s decision to ask a series of awkward questions about his historical views on a range of policy areas, ranging from private healthcare to gun control, despite the fact that his new party has no policies beyond leaving the European Union.

Farage suggests that this was a ploy by the BBC to avoid talking about the Brexit Party’s success or the factors driving that success. But for all the sound and fury, the row probably suits both sides.

As far as the BBC goes, Marr’s questions were entirely legitimate even if they weren’t to Farage’s liking. He’s an influential figure in British politics and intends his party to contest the next general election, where its domestic agenda will inevitably come into focus. Given his position of apparently absolute power within the Brexit Party (which has no formal membership) the voters have a right to probe Farage’s views on these questions.

On the other hand, it is unlikely that the fallout of the interview will do very much to dent Farage’s support. For all that the Brexit Party is a much sleeker and consciously more cosmopolitan beast than UKIP, there is still likely a ceiling to Farage’s support, perhaps around a third of the electorate. For such voters the idea that the BBC is conspiring against their man wouldn’t be a hard sell, even if they’re not specifically in tune with him on guns or Russia.

The ‘establishment stitch-up’ has always been Farage’s favourite card, and Marr has perhaps given him another opportunity to burnish his outsider status. But it’s unlikely to do much long-term damage to either man, nor to the institutions they represent.

Where does the Liberal Democrat revival leave Change UK’s cursed campaign?

A lethal combination of strategic incoherence and operational incompetence has seen the Remain wave pass the would-be mould-breakers by.

As the ‘Change UK – The Independent Group’ saga continues to unfold, it no longer seems entirely outside the realms of possibility that Chuka Umunna got it going by wishing on a monkey’s paw.

Wish for a new party to emerge out of nowhere and shake (if not yet break) the mould of British politics? Step forward, Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party. Attempt to correct by wishing for Remain voters to break from Labour and start rallying to an explicitly pro-Brexit force? Lo, several hundred new Green and Liberal Democrat councillors.

Of course, in real life there is nothing so exculpatory as black magic underlying CUK-TIG’s growing catalogue of missteps, which appear instead to be rooted in an unfortunate combination of lofty ambition and inattention to detail.

Being a broad-church, establishment party whose general principles are largely understood to speak for themselves is a privilege our system only affords to Labour and the Conservatives. Smaller parties need to build a distinct identity, find themselves a niche, and then exploit that ruthlessly.

CUK-TIG have signally failed to do this. Their original identity – ex-Labour MPs who would no longer tolerate their old party’s descent into the antisemitic gutter – was muddied by the admission of three Conservative defectors, one of whom (Anna Soubry) remains an unabashed advocate of the Coalition’s austerity agenda. This meant their only obvious unifying theme was opposition to Brexit, but because this is not a long-term foundation for a party (as we pointed out two years ago) they have refused to lean into that either.

The result is a party comprised mostly of Labour defectors which apparently intends its MEPs to sit with the centre-right EPP in the European Parliament and whose most eye-catching intervention on domestic policy was a call for the reintroduction of conscription.

And all of that is before you get to the fine-detail failures such as the failure to choose an eye-catching colour, the ever-changing, vacuously corporate branding, losing control of their Twitter handle, angering their activists by picking minor celebrities as candidates and failing to provide basic campaign infrastructure

…getting Have I Got News for You cancelled

Unsurprisingly, the net result of all this is that not only have they failed to attract any new defectors, but one of the two MEPs appears to have defected back out again. Meanwhile the Remain wave, such as it is, has passed them by. History may not repeat itself, but there’s a David Owen-esque rhyme to the fact that CUK-TIG gambled on breaking the mould by playing hardball with the Liberal Democrats, and have now squandered what might well prove to have been their best shot at a favourable merger.

The original tale of the monkey’s paw ends with the hapless wisher banishing the thing he’d summoned back into the ground. If current polling is any indication, the electorate might yet play that role for CUK-TIG in the upcoming European elections.

Promotions for Frazer and Murrison as May fills out her Government

The new Solicitor General and FCO/DfID minister are both sensible choices, which might say more about the Prime Minister’s position than her judgement.

Last month, we highlighted how Theresa May was struggling to plug gaps in her Government, with several ministerial posts and a raft of PPS positions going unfilled.

Soon after that she embarked on a round of appointments, and yesterday evening the Prime Minister rounded this off with a small number of further appointments.

First, Luzy Frazer (QC) has been moved from the Ministry of Justice to be made Solicitor General, replacing Robert Buckland who takes the opposite journey. As our editor pointed out this morning, Frazer is now well-positioned to take over from Geoffrey Cox as Attorney General at some point in the future.

Meanwhile Dr Andew Murrison is taking up ministerial posts at the Foreign Office and Department for International Development, putting an end to speculation that Alistair Burt might return to the role.

He is part of what is an important constituency for the Prime Minister: pro-Brexit Conservative MPs who are not, as far as we know, aligned with the European Research Group. As a former minister he will also be able to swiftly get to grips with the role, which is all the more important given the potentially short lifespan of this ministry.

Both of these therefore seem to be sensible, well-judged appointments – from someone who once aspired to make Karen Bradle Home Secretary. May’s lack of room for manoeuvre continues to serve the country well.

Henry Hill: Davidson rejects calls to split Tories as she sets out campaign vision

Also: Mercer resigns over Government’s handling of historical allegations against veterans; and Welsh health minister fends off no-confidence vote after latest scandal.

Davidson rejects prospect of splitting the Party

Following suggestions (set out on this site by Andy Maciver) that the Scottish Conservatives were contemplating a breakaway, Ruth Davidson appeared to quash the suggestion this week, according to the Times.

She reportedly told Andrew Marr that: “My entire leadership pitch back in 2011 was predicated on the idea that we wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom party but with the autonomy for candidate selection, policy, financing and all of these other things that come under my purview.”

The extent of this autonomy has been stretched in the past, such as on occasions when it appeared that some Scottish Conservatives were trying to claim they had distinct policies on reserved issues.

Sources in the Scottish Tories claim to have private polling which suggests that Boris Johnson is satanically unpopular in Scotland, and some suggest that this would necessitate a breakaway if he became leader of the UK party. Earlier this week it was revealed that the former Foreign Secretary had been barred from the Scottish conference.

However, this hasn’t stopped Johnson from embarking on a ‘leadership tour’ of Scotland to bolster his ‘One Nation’ credentials, the Sun reports. He will headline a fundraiser organised by Ross Thomson, the arch-Brexiteer MP for Aberdeen South, as well as trying to drum up support amongst other associations.

Meanwhile Davidson used the conference to start setting out her pitch for the First Minister’s job at the next Scottish elections. Amongst her headline policies was a proposal to raise the leaving age for mandatory education from 16 to 18 and a new emphasis on vocational education.

She also promised that her administration would mean an end to the “constitutional games” which have so pre-occupied the SNP over the past few years.

Mercer resigns over prosecution of veterans

The News Letter reports on Johnny Mercer’s decision to withdraw his support from the Government until it takes action to prevent the prosecution of ex-servicemen for alleged historical offences in Northern Ireland.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, the MP for Plymouth Moor View wrote that he found the repeated investigations “personally offensive”, adding:

“These repeated investigations with no new evidence, the macabre spectacle of elderly veterans being dragged back to Northern Ireland to face those who seek to re-fight that conflict through other means, without any protection from the Government who sent them almost 50 years ago, is too much.”

He has withdrawn his support from all Government legislation “outside of Brexit”.

Although none have yet gone so far as Mercer, the question of protecting veterans of the security forces in Northern Ireland excises a number of Conservative backbenchers. The Northern Irish Office has been criticised for deliberately excluding Ulster cases from the Ministry of Defence’s broader efforts to protect current and former soldiers from so-called ‘tank-chasing’ lawyers.

In other Northern Irish news, a senior figure in the Province’s human rights community has accused Sinn Fein of ‘abusing the concept of human rights’ by using a row over the status of the Irish language to block the restoration of Stormont.

Professor Brice Dickson, former chief commissioner at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, argued that republicans’ decision to use gay marriage and the language question as “bargaining chips” was denying the people of Ulster their right to government, and that in 2008 Sinn Fein supported the NIHRC’s advice on a Bill of Rights which included neither measure.

Meanwhile an academic has written to the News Letter urging the DUP to separate the two issues. Professor John Wilson Foster, a scholar of the Irish language, argued that the DUP’s opposition to gay marriage undermined the Union, and that abandoning it would strengthen their chances of resisting Sinn Fein’s politically-motivated language legislation.

Doubts linger over Welsh Assembly as health minister survives no-confidence vote

Vaughan Gething, the Welsh health minister and recent contender for the local Labour leadership, has survived an attempt to oust him from his position in the wake of the latest Welsh health scandal, Wales Online reports.

A motion of no confidence was tabled by Plaid Cymru following the revelation that dozens of stillbirths have not been properly reported or investigated at hospitals run by the Cwm Taf NHS Trust. It was supported by the Nationalists and the Tories, but fell 31 votes to 21.

This comes just weeks after news broke that Welsh patients face being turned away at English hospitals because the Welsh Government refuses to match English per-patient funding, which I looked at in this column a few weeks ago.

Perhaps stories like this explain why polling published this week to mark the 20th anniversary of devolution revealed deep ambivalence amongst the public as to whether or not it had been good for Wales, with just a third agreeing and a quarter disagreeing.

Despite this – and likely in part due to the lack of any consistent and effective devo-sceptic campaign – an overall majority (52 per cent) favour either granting the Assembly even more powers (27 per cent) or holding it at the same level (25 per cent). Just under a fifth of Welsh voters want its powers weakened or the Assembly abolished, but at present that view is almost entirely unrepresented in Welsh political life.

Local elections 4) The minor parties: Greens surge, UKIP collapse, localists and independents thrive

The first are up, the second are – unsurprisingly – down, and there are plenty of the third. We also see new toeholds for several fringe parties.

11.30 am

A notable feature of the local elections has been the unusually strong performances for some minor parties, not to mention the sheer variety of them (something perhaps presaged by Newport West by-election). Here are the top lines:

  • The biggest beneficiary by far are the Greens, who at the time of writing have got 48 seats, a net gain of +42. They are likely beneficiaries (along with the Liberal Democrats) of Labour’s failure to make headway.
  • UKIP, by contrast, are having a torrid time of it, with the BBC reporting that at present they hold just 17 seats, a net loss of -54. They have managed to make a few pick-ups in places such as Sunderland, but have been wiped out in their former stronghold in Thurrock.
  • But the biggest surge is in what the BBC classifies as ‘Others’, who currently hold 367 seats – a whopping net gain of +230. With the Tories and Labour having shed between them over 500 council seats, and the Greens and Lib Dems picking up only 350 or so, this represents a significant weakening of the national party pattern in town halls.
  • Unfortunately, the ‘Others’ category can be unhelpfully imprecise at times. The bulk of the councillors in this group are either independents or ‘localists’ – representatives of hyper-local parties. In Bolton, for example, Labour lost a slew of seats to groups such as ‘Horwich and Blackrod First’ and ‘Farnworth and Kearsley First’, a result which the Bolton News reports could lead to the Tories taking control of the council for the first time in four decades. Some larger groups, such as the county-wide Lincolnshire Independents, also did well.
  • But sifting through this group more finely – and thank you in particular to Election Maps UK for so doing – we also find that a perhaps surprising number of very small national parties have gained new town-hall footholds. For example, the continuity Liberal Party picked up a seat in South Kesteven (no word on Patrick O’Flynn’s continuity SDP).
  • Perhaps benefiting from the weakness of UKIP, several right-wing and far-right outfits also managed to gain representation. Democrats & Veterans took two seats in Barnsley, whilst the Veterans & People’s Party and For Britain took a seat apiece in Hartlepool. It remains to be seen whether one of these can consolidate these toeholds into a proper local government base in the years ahead, but this is perhaps an early warning of what might be in store for British politics if Brexit remains unresolved.

Henry Hill: Davidson demands May’s successor rules out another Scottish independence referendum

Also: Ministry of Defence and Northern Irish Office clash over protecting ex-servicemen and police; and another bad week for Scottish Labour.

Scottish Tory leader demands party rules out another independence poll

It is arguably fortunate for Ruth Davidson that her maternity leave coincided with the period when the surreal polling bubble in which Theresa May’s Government had been floating finally burst.

As she returned to the fray this week, untainted by the past few months, the Scottish Conservative leader demanded that whoever succeeds May as Prime Minister rule out giving authorisation for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary and close ally of Davidson, also made similar noises in an interview with the Sunday Herald. He also told his local paper that he retained ‘high hopes’ for the Scottish Parliament, despite its “unfulfilled potential”.

Davidson also ruled herself out of any contest for the UK leadership, saying that her son was her top priority.

This comes amidst conflicting evidence about the state of support for independence: whilst a YouGov poll for The Times suggests that voters are “swinging towards independence”, the Daily Telegraph reports that only one in five Scots support Nicola Sturgeon’s proposals to hold another vote within the next two years.

Nationalist activists inflicted a serious setback on the First Minister at the SNP conference this week, when they defeated a leadership-backed proposal to try to retain the pound after independence. Public fears about the currency of an independent Scotland – and its implications for pensions, mortgages, and so on – has been identified as a major stumbling block to winning over ‘No’ voters.

However, none of this has prevented the wearisome tradition of English commentators writing about how strong the case for Scottish independence suddenly is: John Harris at the Guardian, Jeremy Warner at the Daily Telegraph, and Philip Stephens at the FT all indulged in such exercises this week. The myth of the fragile Union endures. Stephen Daisley, writing in the Spectator, was closer to the mark when he argued that Sturgeon is taking her base “for a ride” on the question.

Fresh row over probes into police and soldiers during the Troubles

The Government faces another argument over its treatment of those who served in the security forces during the Troubles, the Sun reveals, after it emerged that over 200 former soldiers and police officers face investigation.

Whilst the Ministry of Defence wants to impose a statute of limitations on investigations, the Northern Irish Office has reportedly told “relatives of those killed in the Troubles” that any such restrictions will not apply to Ulster cases. Unionists have long been dissatisfied with the NIO’s apparent failure to fight their corner the way Dublin does for the nationalists.

Conservative MPs such as John Hayes have strongly criticised the Government for confining the MoD’s efforts to protect ex-servicemen to recent conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Notably, Theresa May did not take the opportunity afforded by last night’s reshuffle to move Karen Bradley away from the Ulster brief, in which she is almost universally viewed as incompetent. This comes as the Northern Irish Secretaries tries to spearhead yet another round of talks aimed at getting the Northern Irish Assembly back up and running.

But whilst the Belfast Telegraph reports that the DUP and Sinn Fein have pledged to “engage constructively” with the process, optimism remains low. As our editor pointed out this week, May’s own insistence on making a no-deal Brexit contingent on the existence of an Assembly gives Sinn Fein and others every reason to forestall it.

In happier news, the Sunday Telegraph revealed that the police have re-opened the investigation into the 1979 assassination of Airey Neave. Sajid Javid ordered it reviewed after it had lain untouched for 30 years.

Neave was killed by a bomb in the car park of the Palace of Westminster. He had been the architect of the Conservatives’ Northern Irish policy at the 1979 election, which involved setting aside the goal of restoring Stormont in favour of better integrating the Province with the mainland. Margaret Thatcher did not carry through this proposal after his death.

Woe for Scottish Labour as Dugdale quits

Kezia Dugdale, the former Labour leader in Scotland, has announced that she will be stepping down from the Scottish Parliament, taking up a position at a think-tank aimed at tackling “populist politics”.

This comes after she won a defamation case against cybernat blogger Stuart Campbell, better known by his alias ‘Wings over Scotland’. Her relations with the Party broke down after it refused to support her and even appeared to suggest that she would lose, and she previously told the Times that she could not forgive them.

Meanwhile Anas Sarwar, another Labour MSP, has apparently been banned from giving evidence to an anti-racism probe into allegations of racist conduct he himself made. According to the Scotsman, Sarwar was only given four days’ notice of the hearing, and then told he could not provide evidence as he needed to give two weeks’ notice to do so.

Unsurprisingly, he has branded the system unfit for purpose. The hearing by the National Constitutional Committee found that, without any verbal evidence being taken, there was “no case to answer”. Sarwar claims a Labour councillor refused to back his leadership bid because Scotland wouldn’t vote for a “brown Muslim P**i”.

The loss of May’s fracking tsar illustrates a decaying will to govern

The Government’s combination of pro-shale rhetoric and highly restrictive regulation could almost be calculated to please nobody.

For a Government which has been wracked by as many resignations as Theresa May’s, the departure of a mere ‘tsar’ may count as a little light relief.

Yet Natascha Engel’s decision to step down as Shale Gas Commissioner is just the latest evidence of the extent to which this administration’s domestic agenda is disintegrating as it focuses its dwindling reserves of energy on the Prime Minister’s ongoing efforts to pass her Withdrawal Agreement.

Engel, a former Labour MP and Deputy Speaker who represented North East Derbyshire before being unseated by Lee Rowley in 2017, was appointed by Claire Perry, the Energy Minister, only seven months ago. She was meant to serve as a “single point of contact” for residents and others on the subject of fracking.

Yet she claims that ministers are making shale gas extraction effectively impossible by imposing excessive restrictions, namely requiring an 18-hour pause in drilling every time a ‘micro-tremor’ of magnitude 0.5 or greater is detected. The industry claims that such tremors are almost entirely undetectable on the surface and that several more serious ones – unconnected to fracking – have occurred in the UK without any ill-effect.

In a parting shot in the Times, Engel herself argues that shale has an essential role to play in helping the UK transition from traditional oil and gas to renewable energy – which currently provides only a fraction of Britain’s energy needs on a reliable basis – whilst avoiding counter-productive alternatives such as wood pellets or bio-fuels. Labour and green activists want shale extraction banned altogether.

Setting aside the question of whether or not fracking is a good thing, the Government’s current position appears designed to irritate both sides to minimal benefit. Greta Thunberg’s acolytes won’t be won over by official statements saying that shale extraction “could have the potential to be a new domestic energy source and create thousands of well-paid, quality jobs”.

But if the shale companies can’t extract then neither those jobs nor that energy will materialise either – and this hasn’t gone unnoticed in usually-friendly newspapers such as The Sun and the Daily Telegraph.

Engel’s version of events – that the Government has chickened out of reviewing the originally-temporary 0.5 limit because it lacks the fight to take on the green lobby – is entirely plausible, and illustrative of a Government which appears to be losing even the capacity for power. May is reportedly scrambling to find bills to justify forestalling a new Queen’s Speech – it’s too much to hope that action on this important front will be part of that exercise.