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.