Henry Hill: Tory MPs lead backlash against decision to prosecute Ulster veteran

Also: Eleven candidates prepare to fight Newport West by-election; Trimble hints that backstop changes could be enough; and more.

Fury of Tory MPs as soldier charged over Bloody Sunday

The decision by Northern Irish prosecutors to lay charges against one of the soldiers implicated in the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings has attracted an angry response, the Sun reports.

Conservative MPs Johnny Mercer and Leo Docherty, who had been campaigning to protect ex-servicemen, led the charge. Contrasts were drawn between the treatment of ‘Soldier F’ and the many IRA terrorists who were granted immunity from prosecution by Tony Blair’s notorious ‘comfort letters’ programme.

Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, has announced that the Government will cover Soldier F’s legal fees, and reiterated his position that the system for investigating legacy issues needs to be overhauled.

However there was anger from the other direction too, with families of those killed upset that prosecutions will not be brought against more former soldiers, with 16 other elderly veterans who were probed facing no action due to “insufficient evidence”.

Newport West by-election candidates announced

The parties have unveiled their candidates to succeed Paul Flynn, the veteran Labour MP who represented the constituency since 1987 – and it looks like quite the circus.

No fewer than 11 candidates are putting their names forward, with representatives of the major parties competing with challenges from such varied sources as Abolish the Welsh Assembly, centrist party Renew, far-right For Britain, the continuity SDP, and whatever Democrats & Veterans is.

You can read interviews with all of them on Wales Online. Whilst most of these obviously have no chance of success, it will be interesting to see what impact some of them have on the other parties. One particular thing to watch will be whether Abolish the Assembly manage to make a dent in the Conservative vote with their strong unionist message.

As for the seat itself, Flynn bequeaths his successor a majority of over 5,000. However the Tories managed to cut it to around 3,500 in both 2010 and 2015, and with the unwinding of his personal vote, plus an estimated Leave vote of over 50 per cent, they may be able to put on a strong showing.

Trimble hints that backstop changes may be enough

One of the architects of the Belfast Agreement, and a staunch critic of Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, has suggested that she has managed to meaningfully reduce the threat posed by the Irish backstop, according to the Daily Express.

Writing for policy exchange Lord Trimble, who launched a legal challenge against the Withdrawal Agreement on the grounds that it breached the Belfast Agreement, wrote:

“A widespread war weariness on all sides is a significant factor. But the Government has succeeded in securing substantive changes that will affect and limit the impact of the Irish backstop, if it is ever put in place at the end of the transitional period.”

His co-author was Lord Bew, a life peer and Professor of Irish Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.

This comes in the same week that ministers are reportedly “pulling out all the stops” to secure the Democratic Unionists’ support for the Prime Minister’s deal.

Amongst the inducements reportedly on offer is the scrapping of Air Passenger Duty on flights from Northern Ireland, whilst the DUP are demanding that their MPs be “deeply involved” in the next round of negotiations with Brussels over the future relationship – along with the obvious extra cash.

However, despite rumours that a deal might be close earlier this week, MPs such as Jim Shannon have been quick to reiterate that they aren’t there yet, saying that: “We will not sell our soul for a deal that threatens the Union.”

Scottish MP preparing tilt at Liberal Democrat leadership

Jo Swinson, the Member of Parliament for East Dunbartonshire, is reportedly one of three Lib Dem legislators preparing to run to succeed Sir Vince Cable as leader when he steps down in May.

A business minister during the Coalition, she lost her seat in party’s 2015 wipe-out before regaining it two years later. She as built a profile campaigning on equality issues, and was at the centre of last year’s controversy over pairing.

She will be squaring off against Sir Ed Davey, the former Energy Secretary and MP for Kingston, and possibly Layla Moran, the newly-elected MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.

Henry Hill: New report says Scottish independence negotiations will be ‘tougher than Brexit’

Also: Welsh Labour slump in latest poll; SNP push Mundell over post-Brexit funding; DUP resist calls for 50/50 police recruitment – and more.

New report says Scottish independence will be ‘tougher than Brexit’

Last week, we reported that the SNP were divided over a call by Andrew Wilson, the man charged with producing their so-called ‘Growth Commission’ report, for the party to pursue a ‘sofy indy’ strategy

Now a new report has suggested that any divorce negotiations following a Scottish vote for independence could be much more difficult than Brexit, according to the Scotsman.

Dr Kirsty Hughes, of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, says that whilst some parts of any separation negotiations would be similar to Brexit, others – most obviously the division of assets and liabilities – would be different and considerably more complicated due to the added difficulty of unpicking a centuries-old, sovereign state.

However, she did say that the shambolic Brexit negotiations could provide both sides of any future independence negotiation a clear example of what to avoid.

In other news, David Mundell this week alleged that the Scottish Nationalists were trying to engineer a no-deal Brexit in order to further their campaign to break up the United Kingdom.

He accused the SNP of effectively backing ‘no deal’ by voting against the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement – and also apparently hinted that he might support efforts by Europhile MPs to usurp the Government’s control of the negotiations.

Meanwhile the Nationalists, fresh from bouncing the Scottish Tories into endorsing deeply damaging u-turns on ‘post-Brexit devolved powers’, are now trying to push Mundell into abandoning the Conservatives’ plan for UK Government funds – intended to replace EU investment – to be distributed directly by Westminster.

The Nationalists want as much patronage as possible controlled by Holyrood, and are likely to be especially wary of anything which undermines their efforts to bring Scottish local government under central control. The Scottish Government has been pushing to curb councils’ autonomy by holding down council tax and making up the shortfall with central funding which they control.

Poll shows significant decline in Labour support in Wales

Labour are on course to lose five Welsh seats at the next general election, according to a new poll commissioned by ITV, after a slump which would see them lose as many Assembly Members too.

Roger Awan-Scully, the Welsh psephological expert, explains that despite the Conservatives also seeing their lowest Westminster voting intention since January 2017, the sheer scale of Labour’s fall would see them pick up four seats: Cardiff North, Gower, Vale of Clwyd, and Wrexham. Plaid Cymru would also win Ynys Mon on the back of a relatively strong showing.

If translated into a devolved election, meanwhile, the Tories would pick up the same four seats whilst Plaid would take Blaenau Gwent, Cardiff West and Llanelli. This would leave Labour with just 20 constituency seats, its worst showing since the advent of devolution.

Compared to December’s poll for Sky, ITV find a lower level of support for Abolish the Assembly, instead suggesting that both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats might have recovered slightly – the latter are projected to retain two seats, whereas in December it looked as if even their one projected hold was likely a statistical fluke.

However, ATA have announced that they will contest the upcoming Newport West by-election, which has been precipitated by the death of Labour’s Paul Flynn. Richard Suchorzewski announced his candidacy after a Facebook poll of the party’s supporters strongly backed the idea of suspending ATA’s usual policy of not contesting Westminster seats.

The presence of a hard-line unionist candidate might unsettle the Conservatives, who have run a fairly close second in the constituency during the last few elections and might have been hoping to capitalise on Labour’s poor polling and the unwinding of Flynn’s personal vote. Others are worried about the impact that ATA candidates might have in close-run Assembly races in the next devolved elections in 2021.

Democratic Unionists resist reintroduction of 50/50 police recruitment

The DUP have spoken out strongly against calls from Sinn Fein and the SDLP to reintroduce the controversial 50/50 recruitment requirement for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the News Letter reports.

Introduced for a ten-year period, this mandated the PSNI to ensure that it took in as many recruits from the Catholic community as the Protestant one. Both nationalist parties are calling for its reintroduction to address a lack of confidence in the police on the part of their voters, but the DUP have branded the policy ‘institutionalised sectarianism’.

In other news Jim Allister, leader of the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice party, has stepped up pressure on the DUP over the backstop. This was ahead of reports in this morning’s papers that the party might be softening their stance on the Withdrawal Agreement, provided that Geoffrey Cox can bring a sufficiently tough codicil or other mechanism.

Leonard under pressure on Brexit and antisemitism

Both the major issues dividing Labour have cast a shadow over their Scottish leader this week. First, Richard Leonard has come under mounting pressure from the SNP to set out his position on a second referendum, specifically over whether Remain should be on the ballot paper.

Then the leader of Scotland’s Jewish community branded Labour ‘institutionally racist’, and revealed that Leonard had not been in touch with him despite several high-profile incidents of antisemitism within the party. Ephraim Borowski said the party’s failure to tackle the issue fit the definition of institutional racism set out in the Macpherson Report.

The Welsh Conservatives need to break out of their rut in 2019

As predicted, they have scarcely profited from the collapse of UKIP – and now Abolish the Assembly is mounting a challenge for the unionist vote.

Last August, I mooted that the Welsh Conservatives risked missing a big strategic opportunity if they stuck to the safety-first strategy their two leadership candidates appeared to have adopted.

By ‘leaning in’ to the devolutionary status quo and trying to align themselves as possible coalition partners with Plaid Cymru – not impossible, under a different Nationalist leader – the Tories might squander the opportunity to pick up pro-Brexit, pro-UK voters from UKIP.

Fast forward to 2019, and the evidence is coming in that this is exactly what has come to pass. New Welsh polling from Sky, courtesy of Professor Roger Awan-Scully, finds that the disintegration of the ‘People’s Army’ has failed to provide any meaningful boost to the Conservatives.

Consider this: in the 2016 Assembly elections the Tories took 11 seats (down three), whilst UKIP picked up seven. That’s a net gain of four for what we might broadly term the ‘unionist right’ and put it on 18 seats, or nearly a third of the Assembly.

Now? UKIP are all but gone. After two and a half years of resignations, coups, and general chaos, this latest polling puts them at just a single seat – and that, I’m told, could well be a mere statistical fluke. The Conservatives? They’re projected to win 13 seats, just two more than 2016 and fewer than they had in 2011.

So where have these ex-UKIP voters gone? A substantial portion appear to have defected to the single-issue integrationist party ‘Abolish the Assembly’, who are projected to enter said institution for the first time.

But ATA only get two seats, and with the Liberal Democrats still languishing on one (and that one a constituency seat which is Tory at Westminster!) the rest have presumably either gone back to Labour or stopped voting in devolved elections, as right-wing unionist voters are wont.

Worst of all, the new polling indicates that once again the Conservatives are behind Plaid in the devolved vote, despite being streets ahead in the Westminster voting intention. If this holds true at election time – and it has to date – that indicates hundreds of thousands of Tory voters staying at home for devolved contests, and would consign the party to junior partnership with the Nationalists in the event of any coalition.

Labour, Plaid, the Conservatives, and UKIP all enter 2019 with new political leaders, one of whom is First Minister. With no major electoral contests scheduled (emphasis on scheduled) for this year, they ought to have a bit of breathing space in which to take stock and implement their strategies.

For the Conservatives, the key remains whether or not they can break out of their strategic rut at Assembly level – perhaps by studying how Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories both animated their base and broadened their coalition with an emphasis on the Union.

Not only do their Welsh counterparts need to find a way to activate their Westminster voters and get out ahead of Plaid, but they also need to be wary that ATA doesn’t establish itself as a viable contender for their unionist core vote. If they have to start fighting on that front, any Plaid-facing campaign seems doomed.

Henry Hill: DUP MP calls for direct rule to stop unelected civil servants running Northern Ireland

Also: possible breakthrough for devoscepticism as ‘Abolish the Assembly’ projected to win seats; and Scottish Tories embroiled in EU referendum row.

Democratic Unionist MP calls for return of direct rule…

Emma Little-Pengelly, the DUP MP for Belfast South, has called for Westminster to resume direct rule of Northern Ireland, the Times reports.

Although taking pains to emphasise that they are “a party of devolution”, she argued that it is inappropriate that “life or death decisions” about the Province’s governance are being made by civil servants without political oversight or accountability.

March 2019 will mark two years since the collapse of Ulster’s power-sharing administration and devolved assembly. Since the UK Government has refused to step in, the local civil service – which is currently ramping up preparations for a ‘no deal’ Brexit – has been left to administer the Province on auto-pilot.

Interestingly, this is not the only integrationist noise from the DUP this month: Arlene Foster earlier floated the idea of the Northern Irish civil service (which has stood discrete for almost a century) being abolished and its responsibilities returned to the Home Civil Service.

The Government is deeply reluctant to resume responsibility for governing Northern Ireland, both because of the additional pressure it will mount on the parliamentary timetable and because it will signal – in a way that two years’ of civil service rule hasn’t, presumably – the failure of Karen Bradley’s efforts to get the Northern Ireland Assembly back on its feet.

Another concern might be that previous direct rule arrangements involved the Northern Irish Secretary assuming almost viceregal authority over all aspects of governing the Province, rather than integration into mainland governance arrangements. Bradley might not be the minister best-placed to fulfil that particular function.

The paper reports that the DUP believe that Boris Johnson, who recently addressed their conference, would support the return of direct rule, although he apparently denies this.

Finally, the story of the Constitutional Research Council’s ‘shadowy’ donation to the DUP reached its anticlimax this week when the Electoral Commission fined the CRC the princely sum of just £6,000, according to the News Letter.

This was levied for failing to notify them about the £435,000 donation, rather than any impropriety regarding the source of the money. Despite much paranoiac speculation about this so-called ‘dark money’, the Commission have ruled it to come from legitimate sources.

…as polls suggest anti-devolution party might break through in Wales

More good news on the devolution front, this time from Wales. For the first time, Professor Roger Awan-Scully’s polling has found the bluntly-titled Abolish the Assembly party on track to win representation in that self-same institution.

They appear to be the beneficiaries of the pretty much total collapse in UKIP’s position: the ‘People’s Army’ looks set to fall from seven seats in 2016 to just one, and that last may well just be a statistical artefact.

Unfortunately for the Conservatives, it looks as if they have missed the strategic opportunity posed by UKIP’s collapse that I wrote about during their leadership contest earlier this year. Despite the disintegration of another pro-UK, pro-Brexit party they look set to pick up just two seats, failing to match their 2011 total and still stuck in third behind Plaid. The gulf between their Westminster and Cardiff Bay polling positions also remains, testament to hundreds of thousands of Tory voters preferring to stay at home than endorse the party’s Assembly offer.

Whilst Abolish the Assembly may go the way of UKIP – it is never easy for a fringe party to adapt swiftly to the larger stage – if they can set down roots they could cause a real headache for the Welsh Conservatives down the line. If they start making a credible devo-sceptic pitch to core Tory voters, the current strategy of ‘leaning in’ to the devolutionary agenda and laying the ground to be (junior) partners with Plaid in an anybody-but-Labour coalition will be unsustainable.

As for their core goal, a second set of data released this morning suggests that at present about one in five Welsh voters would choose to abolish the Assembly if given the chance. Given that this idea is essentially unrepresented by any of the parties, think tanks, or newspapers, there could be worse starting points.

Scottish Tories in EU referendum row as Supreme Court deals blow to SNP Brexit bill

The Supreme Court ruled this week that a bill tabled by the Scottish Government to assert its control over various policy areas post-Brexit exceeded its powers, the Financial Times reports.

Adam Tomkins, the constitutional law professor and Conservative MSP, tweeted afterwards to show how swathes of the document had been struck down.

This comes in the same week that Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, announced that the “ship had sailed” on a soft Brexit compromise as the Nationalists’ toughened their stance regarding a second referendum. Nicola Sturgeon has reportedly made securing one her “top priority” – although Murdo Fraser points out that they won’t commit to respecting the result.

In fact, the row over a second referendum spread to the Scottish Tories this week after a seemingly well-sourced piece from Chris Deerin in the New Statesman suggested that they were preparing to back a second Brexit vote themselves. Given that this would set a clear precedent for giving the Nationalists’ another tilt at independence this was quite the claim, and acting leader Jackson Carlaw has quashed the rumour (in very robust language).

Nonetheless, since Deerin obviously didn’t invent his sources the event raises the question of which elements inside the Scottish Conservatives are flying a kite, and why. Perhaps the emerging divisions in the party, which I touched on last week, are deeper than they appear.