Iain Dale: Perhaps one day I’ll get involved in an election again. In the meantime, here are my predictions for Super Thursday’s results…

7 May

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

This is the first time for some years that I haven’t been able to host a live election night show on LBC. Because of Covid, many local authorities decided they wouldn’t count overnight. And since I don’t have a show on Friday or at the weekends, I feel as if I’m being silenced!

Like most of you, I suspect, I love elections. I well remember my first election day back in 1983 in Norwich. I was designated to be a teller and work in the Committee Room. I’ve always loved lists and can remember the thrill of crossing off all the people who had voted on the electoral roll boards.

Sitting outside the polling station was great fun, and was probably the thing I loved doing most. I enjoyed the banter with the tellers from the other parties and with people who were voting. The winks, the furtive smiles. Or growls. I’d have happily done it all day.

And then I remember when I was a candidate in various local elections, and then a general election, touring the polling stations and talking to the election officials. This was quite a challenge in North Norfolk in 2005, where there were, if I recall correctly, more than 100 polling stations.

Still, it kept me out of mischief on polling day, and took my mind off the disaster I knew was ahead of me at the count! The last time I was involved in an election day as a party activist was in 2009. I can hardly believe it was so long ago. Since then I’ve always been on the radio, or preparing for an overnight show. But I’ll always remember the thrill I got out of being involved. And who knows, one day I may be again.

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Second preferences are a weird thing. You’re voting for a candidate or a party you really don’t want to win, but they’re the least-worst option. By definition it’s a negative vote. In the PCC election I’m afraid I just could bring myself to tick a box at all.

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“You’ve broken the law, Iain,” said a Twitter follower. He had heard my For the Many podcast in which I revealed how I had voted (by post) in the local elections, both in Norfolk and Kent. “You can’t vote twice,” he maintained.

Luckily I know my electoral law better than he did. If you have properties in two different council areas you are, indeed, entitled to cast your vote in each of them in local elections. However, that does not apply in general elections. I patiently explained this to him.

His reply was amusing. “So you’re telling me I’ve missed out on voting twice for the 17 years I’ve had a second home?” Yup, I said. “Bugger,” he replied.

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So here are my predictions for the results of the various elections…

Scotland: SNP to get a majority of seats. Conservatives remain the main opposition. Greens gain an extra one or two MSPs. Alex Salmond is elected with one or two others.

Wales: Conservatives add seats, but Labour remains largest party. Plaid gain a few seats. Lib Dems disappear completely. Mark Drakeford to lose his seat.

London: Sadiq Khan walks it. Shaun Bailey gets 25-30 per cent of first preferences. Greens get around 10 per cent.

West Midlands: Andy Street wins.

Hartlepool by-election: Conservatives to take it.

English County & District Councils: Lib Dems do better in these than any of the other elections. Labour lose seats, Conservatives gains. Greens add to their seat count too. Minor parties squeezed.

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Jacqui Smith and I will be recording an Election Special For the Many podcast for release on Monday morning, analysing all the results.

Whatever they bring, there is bound to be a new bout of reshuffle speculation. However, if the results turn out as I predict above, if I were the PM I’d be tempted to leave any reshuffle until a bit later in the year – either before the summer recess or in the autumn.

The same is not true for Keir Starmer, though. Having had an impressive first eight months as leader of the Labour Party, 2021 has so far proved to be disastrous.

To be fair, it’s not all down to him, as few of his shadow cabinet have managed to cut through at all. Anneliese Dodds is copping a lot of criticism, but to be fair to her, she’s not alone in failing to make much of a mark. The consensus among pundits is he needs to bring Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn into his top team. But what if they don’t wish to return?

Cooper seems to enjoy chairing her select committee and Benn may well feel he’s done his bit. Do a search among other Labour MPs who have a bit of experience, and they’re pretty thin on the ground. Starmer’s position at the moment is far from enviable.

Lord Ashcroft: My survey of Scottish voters. The SNP maintains its lead for the Holyrood elections. But there are clouds on its horizon.

28 Apr

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Events that change the world sometimes have little apparent effect on politics. At first glance, this is the case with the Covid pandemic and the scene in Scotland.

The independence debate continues to sit on a knife-edge. In my 2,000-sample survey, the 51-49 margin for staying in the UK amounts to a statistical dead heat. To the frustration of many voters on all sides who would rather talk about something else, the question still dominates the agenda: nearly as many people say they will use their votes next week to prevent a new referendum as to try and secure one.

Not only does the SNP maintain its clear lead in the Holyrood elections, but its support is more intense: those naming the nationalists as their most likely choice put their chances of actually turning out to vote for them higher than those of other parties’ potential backers.

Nicola Sturgeon herself is more dominant than ever. As her newly-appointed rivals (and the perennial Willie Rennie) struggle to make an impression, the First Minister’s handling of the pandemic has enhanced her standing even among her critics. Many praise the clarity of her daily briefings and draw a contrast with Boris Johnson (whom many Scots cannot quite believe has become Prime Minister), even if the more cynical praise “her commitment to being on TV every day,” as one focus group participant archly put it.

Her occasional digs at London’s approach have found a ready audience, and if she happens to be able to lift restrictions early in the run-up to an election, well, that’s politics, isn’t it? In our ever-revealing question on what animal each leader would be, the canny Sturgeon emerges as a fox, panther or lion. Alex Salmond, her supposed nemesis, is a warthog, toad, snake or wild boar; Johnson is a panda, sloth, orangutan or pigeon (“a lot of folk don’t like them but that doesn’t stop there being pigeons everywhere”). Keir Starmer is sleepy Bagpuss, or “a rabbit caught in the headlights”.

But the research reveals some other straws in the wind. While not necessarily ready to say they have yet changed their minds, we found some former Yes voters more nervous about independence. Though they think Sturgeon has outperformed the Prime Minister, they know that vaccine procurement was a UK effort, and doubt whether an independent Scotland could have sustained its own furlough scheme on anything like the scale seen over the past year. With oil revenues now offering a less reliable foundation for the Scottish economy, the thought grows that Edinburgh might become not just the architectural but the fiscal Athens of the North.

For many, Brexit is a powerful justification for a new independence referendum. But this, too, works both ways. Belief that the effects of Brexit have yet to play out adds to qualms about Scotland’s economic prospects, especially when combined with uncertainty about the post-Covid recovery. Those who would like an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU are far from certain that this could easily happen; they are unlikely to have their doubts assuaged before any new vote.

Northern Ireland’s experience leads to questions about the post-independence border between Scotland and England. And those who despaired at four years of Brexit negotiations will need to be convinced that Westminster will prove a more magnanimous negotiating partner than Brussels – a reversal of the nationalists’ standard demonology. Meanwhile, with questions like Scotland’s future currency unanswered, some who still favour independence at heart feel it would be more of a leap of faith now than in 2014.

Most feel Salmond’s motives for launching Alba have more to do with ego than independence. But the SNP has lost some of its lustre. Many question its record on health, education and poverty, and bungled schemes like Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children. Some openly say the SNP is the means to an end, believing the party to achieve Scottish independence may not be the right one to run an independent Scotland.

Many are nervous about the prospect of a new referendum without authorisation from London, and cite the example of Catalonia. But pro-independence voters take promises of further devolution with a large pinch of salt, and the current settlement seems to promise continued Tory rule from Westminster for much of the foreseeable future. There is a feeling that Scottish politics cannot move on until the question is settled. If it is in Sturgeon’s favour, she seems more likely to dislodge Downing Street’s current occupant than the official opposition.

Full details of Lord Ashcroft’s research can be found at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Henry Hill: Lewis to fly the Union Flag from Stormont House all year round

22 Apr

When the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport issued an edict last month that the Union Flag should henceforth fly from Government buildings all year round – as opposed to roughly a score of ‘designated days’ – there was a problem: the move apparently excluded Northern Ireland.

The official release included a note to editors, picked up by the press, to the effect that “there is specific legislation setting out the arrangements for the flying of flags from government buildings” in the Province. This was taken by some papers, such as the Guardian, to mean that “the new regulations will not apply to Northern Ireland”.

Critics were swift to point out that once again, the Prime Minister’s efforts seemed only to have confirmed Ulster’s semi-detached status.

This obviously wasn’t good enough. As I noted in this column a couple of weeks ago, and for the Belfast News Letter, such policies would only help to undermine unionist and loyalist support for the Belfast Agreement, especially when delivered on top of the ongoing problems caused by the Protocol. As I put it for the paper:

“Coming hot on the heels of the collapse of the Downing Street ‘Union Unit’, it highlights how difficult it will be to drive forward a strongly pro-Union policy agenda against the entrenched attitudes of Whitehall mandarins. Excluding Ulster once again from a visible expression of its British status smacks strongly of the Northern Irish Office and its institutional culture of exaggerated neutrality.”

Fortunately, for once it seems my pessimism was misplaced. Sources in the Northern Ireland Office report that, having reviewed the legalities, Brandon Lewis has ordered that Stormont House, the Department’s headquarters in the Province, will fly the national flag all year round, bringing it into line with the DCMS guidance. The Secretary of State apparently takes the view that, as a UK-wide institution, UK Government buildings in Ulster should not be treated differently to those in other parts of the country.

This will doubtless set spluttering those commentators who view anything that irritates nationalists as a violation of the ‘spirit’ of the Belfast Agreement. But it is an important, if small, step towards demonstrating that the Government is taking its commitment to Northern Ireland, and its place in the United Kingdom, seriously. Lewis should follow it up by teaming up with the law officers to develop a long-overdue understanding of what the UK’s obligations under the Agreement actually are – rather than getting sold on fictitious obligations by Dublin, as Theresa May was.

Scottish Tories double down on SNP rhetoric… as Nationalists back off referendum

Last week, I wrote about how the Scottish Conservatives have angered their Westminster colleagues by putting the Nationalists’ central election message – that an SNP majority means another independence referendum – at the heart of their own campaign.

Perhaps that’s one reason why Douglas Ross confirmed this week that the Prime Minister will not be heading north of the border to campaign before election day.

But the dissent is not confined to London. Over the past week Scottish figures have also got in touch to vent their frustration at a strategy seen as putting the scramble for second place ahead of the best interests of the country. Worse, if you genuinely believe that Boris Johnson can and will refuse a referendum – and you should – then its actually misleading the electorate.

And it continues to undermine efforts to scrutinise the SNP’s woeful record in government, with the Daily Record pointing out that the Tories’ own manifesto mentions independence more times than the NHS.

Most bizarrely of all, they are persisting with this even whilst the Nationalists themselves start backing away from a referendum. They have opted not to refer to it on their ballot paper description, and Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that the pandemic might need to push any poll back to 2024 – a move which leaves her vulnerable to Alex Salmond and his Alba Party, who have been quick to seize the opportunity.

(This might have something to do with the fact that it turns out that several major polls for the Scotsman newspaper failed to properly weight for likelihood to vote and thus overstated support for both the SNP and independence, as the Spectator’s Mr Steerpike sets reveals.)

The oddest part is that wouldn’t even be difficult to fix the messaging. Just replace ‘only’ with ‘best’ in the tweet below and it not only retains its crystal clarity, but it becomes true, allowing the Scottish Conservatives to mobilise their voters without undermining the Prime Minister’s prerogative to maintain the UK.

Iain Dale: On my radio show, I asked Salmond who he would side with out of Putin or Biden. Can you guess his answer?

16 Apr

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Wednesday night I interviewed Alex Salmond for half an hour. I think it was the first lengthy broadcast interview he has done recently.

He and I have history. Back in 2015-16 he used to come into the studio once a week and we’d co-host a phone-in together. I knew him a bit anyway and it went quite well. We had a few rumbustious exchanges along the way and the listeners liked it. I have always respected him as a canny political operator and I always relished our half hour combat sessions.

And then he joined RT (Russia Today). We fell out over that. I could not for the life of me understand how a former First Minister could lend credibility to a Kremlin front organisation. His defence was that his programme was independently made and free of editorial influence from the RT bosses. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Just by appearing on the channel he gave it credibility. And if he couldn’t see that, he was clearly content in being the Kremlin’s tame puppy. Although the interview was about the Scottish elections I made it clear that I wouldn’t do it if any subjects were off limits, and credit to him, he didn’t lay down any conditions at all.

So I asked him if he would say Putin or the Kremlin were behind the Salisbury attacks. I asked him what he thought 85,000 Russian troops were doing on the border of Ukraine. I asked him if he thought the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been poisoned by the Russian State. Answers came there none. Just a flow of evasiveness.

I then asked if he had to side with Putin or Biden, which would it be? 99 per cent of the British population would only give one answer to that, but even on this, Salmond was equivocal. I didn’t need to ram home the point. People could draw their own conclusions.

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The Greensill scandal shows no sign of abating, with fresh revelations emerging almost every day.

David Cameron will no doubt have been very happy to see someone else copping some flak, in the form of Bill Crothers. Shockingly, he was working for Greensill while also being in charge of procurement in the Cabinet Office in the very area Greensill was operating in.

I’ve been around the political lobbying world for 30 years, and am very aware of some of the more unsavoury practices, but this one genuinely floored me.

How on earth can that be allowed to happen, and it if happened with Crothers, who is to say that the practice isn’t more widespread?

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On Wednesday night we had Fay Jones, the Conservative MP for Brecon & Radnorshire, on the Cross Question panel.

What a breath of fresh air. She answered questions fluently, without trying to avoid difficult issues and displayed a great sense of humour too. One to watch.

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The last time I was able to go to my house in Norfolk was at the beginning of November. I have a feeling I wrote at the time about how the A11 was shut at Thetford due to roadworks. On Wednesday night I was very excited to be going back again. Some degree of normality, it seemed, was about to resume.

Boy was I right. Five months on, and the A11 was still shut overnight at Thetford! Unbelievable. I’ve heard of Groundhog Day, but this is ridiculous. It’s like the Highways Agency is on a mission to cut Norfolk off from the rest of the country. But then again, there are quite a few people in Norfolk who would be quite happy for that to happen!

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In my job, I get very little time to read for pleasure. Most things I read because I have to, rather than because I choose to.

But there’s nothing I like more than a good political diary. In the last few weeks I’ve completed the Chips Channon diaries and now I’m in the middle of Alastair Campbell’s dairies volume eight, covering 2010-15, and I’m also a third of the way through Alan Duncan’s diaries.

They are all incredibly different, but all equally enjoyable. And in the case of the last two, you need to put any preconceived ideas to one side. Both Campbell and Duncan have certain reputations, but what you get here is a raw contemporary account of events.

Campbell’s book is in parts intensely emotional and if you don’t know him personally, you’ll be astonished at how open and honest he is about his state of mind, motivations and his relationship with his partner and children. You don’t need to have read the previous seven volumes to enjoy volume eight, but I guarantee if you read volume eight, you’ll line the others up too.

Henry Hill: Anger at Westminster as Scottish Tories put SNP’s referendum pledge at the heart of their campaign

15 Apr

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece explaining why Conservative voters in Scotland should resist the siren call of George Galloway and his ‘All for Unity’ party (A4U), who are urging unionist voters to abandon the main parties on the regional list vote in next month’s Holyrood elections.

The backlash from A4U’s most committed online partisans has been spectacular. Critical journalists are now ‘sophists’ and ‘poison-pen men’, agents of the major parties using ‘the blackest of tactics’ to try desperately to head off this threat to their paymasters.

Nonsense, of course, but it true we would seem to have earned our thirty pieces of silver: the most recent poll found A4U’s support has halved over the last two weeks, and it looks increasingly unlikely to return any MSPs at all. This will doubtless only make its Twitter warriors even more vicious: just yesterday, their constitution spokesman threatened to change the party’s tactical vote recommendation based on whichever candidate was nicest about A4U, rather than best-placed to beat the SNP.

However there is one downside of Galloway’s campaign which I didn’t account for in my piece: that it increases the temptation for the Scottish Conservatives to indulge their worst instincts and run a core-vote campaign that puts the party’s immediate electoral needs over the best interests of the UK. And lo, so they have.

The problem here is that whilst they bitterly disagree over the substance of the issue, both the Tories and the Nationalists benefit electorally when the constitution is the issue at the centre of the debate. The former in particular benefited hugely in 2016 by corralling a broad range of pro-UK voters behind them as the party best-placed to take the fight to the SNP.

Which is probably why the Nationalists’ central election message – that a vote for them is a vote for the Scottish Government to hold another independence referendum – is all over Conservative election messaging. Even though it directly contradicts Conservative policy, which is that the Prime Minister has quite rightly ruled out granting another plebiscite.

Ian Smart, a Labour blogger, has set out why the Tories’ current strategy is so counter-productive. But I know that his frustrations are shared by senior Conservatives at Westminster. Not only does focusing on independence make it harder to scrutinise the Nationalists on their abominable record in government, but it also complicates Boris Johnson’s job when it comes to holding the line after May. How much harder will it be to argue that these elections are not about independence if the Scottish Tories have spent the whole campaign insisting that they are all about independence?

When I first complained about this on Twitter, they got in touch to provide a clarificatory quote:

“The SNP have made it abundantly clear that they will hold another divisive independence referendum, even a wildcat referendum, regardless of what the UK Government says. Our position remains the exact same – that the last thing Scotland needs is another independence referendum and we will be doing everything we can to stop an SNP majority, stop them holding that illegal and divisive referendum, and get all of the focus back on rebuilding Scotland and supporting Scotland’s recovery.”

But none of this nuance is on their literature. It would be a matter of a couple of words to say that the SNP were threatening a ‘wildcat referendum’, or something else to make it clear that we’re talking about potentially unlawful strategies of the sort Alex Salmond and Alba are so keen on.

One of the big problems with devolution has always been the way it aligns the short-term political interests of devolved politicians against the long-term best interests of the United Kingdom. We can only hope that the Prime Minister ignores those clueless ministers sounding off in the Sunday papers about granting a referendum in the middle of the pandemic and refreshes himself on the strong case for a moratorium on Scottish independence.

Scottish Conservative supporters should not vote for ‘All for Unity’

5 Apr

When Alex Salmond launched his Alba Party, his message to Nationalist voters was simple: if everyone who casts their ballot for the SNP in the constituencies throws their vote behind another separatist party in the regional lists, they can game the system and create a ‘supermajority’ for independence in the Scottish Parliament.

He’s not the first to have this idea. Alba immediately annexed another outfit called Action for Independence which was set up with the same intention. Apparently Labour occasionally mulled standing the Co-operative Party in the lists during the era of their hegemony. It’s a poor electoral system that allows such a thing.

Now there are plenty of reasons for nationalists to be wary of this plan. The demands of a ‘supermajority’ yielded by actively disenfranchising unionist voters won’t carry any moral force with the Government, and may even provide cover for Westminster imposing a supermajority requirement on a future independence vote. It could also prevent the SNP winning an overall majority in their own right, which would also undermine Nicola Sturgeon in any face-off with Boris Johnson.

But the basic mathematics of Alba’s proposition is basically correct. The SNP are so dominant in the first-past-the-post constituencies that, outwith the Borders, their list vote is punitively inefficient.

This is not true for the pro-Union parties. Which is why George Galloway’s plan for the Alliance for Unity – known for electoral purposes as ‘All for Unity’ – to serve as an anti-separatist (Jamie Blackett, who made their case on this site, says they are ‘not unionists’) version of Alba makes no sense. Let’s look at why.

‘Unionist unity’ hurts the Union

A4U’s proposal was that the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats should put aside their differences and strike a grand bargain to divvy up the constituency seats between them. Then, in order to maximise the efficiency of the pro-UK vote in the lists, they all stand aside for the proportional ballot in favour of A4U.

Let’s start with the most basic problem: there is scant evidence that this would work even if it were possible. Time and again, from the 2019 general election to many council by-elections, voters for the main parties have proved deeply resistant to that sort of tactical voting. The Tories in particular struggle to win transfers in the multi-round system used for local government in Scotland. Labour shedding voters to the SNP cost the Conservatives seats at the general election.

Thus crude calculations about what seats could be won if only there was a pro-Union pact, based on just adding up the combined main-party vote in a given seat, are nonsense. The total pro-UK electorate is in no way a fungible ‘unionist vote’, and it is maximised by offering voters – including those for whom the constitution is not top priority – a variety of options.

By contrast, any united option would presumably disagree on economic and social issues and thus be stuck focusing on the constitution, the one issue it is least likely to win over voters from the SNP on, and steer unionism into the cul-de-sac it’s trapped itself in in Northern Ireland. It remains as bad an idea now as it ever was.

‘Unionist unity’ is undeliverable

But even if this weren’t the case, the proposal is obviously a non-starter. The difficulty the Liberal and Social Democratic parties had divvying up seats in the 1980s would be nothing compared to the acrimonious circus that three-way negotiations over the constituencies would be. At the very least, any chance of appearing less divided and more focused on the real issues than the separatist side would be squandered.

Nor was it ever realistic to expect that the main parties would cede to A4U the lists, where they win nearly all their seats. Even had any of their leaders been addled enough to consider it, they would not have survived signing up to a plan whose most likely outcome was simply the mass replacement of their MSPs with A4U ones. Put bluntly, such proposals were very obviously in A4U’s interests but nobody else’s.

How A4U will hurt the unionist cause

Any concern that the above interpretation might be overly cynical should be dispelled by party’s conduct. Had the plan been advanced in good faith, one might have expected Galloway, Blackett et al to reconsider once the necessary conditions for its success were not achieved.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead A4U is still planning to fight the lists. As James Kanagasooriam has pointed out, they are currently polling just below the threshold at which minor parties start to pick up seats, meaning they’re just going to make it harder to elect pro-Union MSPs and shorten the odds for Alba and the (also separatist) Greens. If they do pick up seats, it will almost certainly just be at the expense of an MSP from a unionist party, rather than a separatist. As Scotland in Union puts it:

“Modelling of the Scottish electoral system suggests that if the share of pro-UK voters supporting minor parties instead of the established parties doubles, the SNP could hang on to a majority of MSPs with as little as 34% of list votes, three full percentage points lower than if all pro-UK voters voted for one of the big three.”

As the force of this reasoning becomes harder and harder to escape, those who have committed themselves to A4U have started to abandon the pretensions of a tactical masterplan. Instead, it’s now all about ousting unionism’s tired has-beens in favour of fresh blood, which Galloway can lead to ‘really take the fight to the SNP’, whatever that means.

In reality, they will have no obvious way to land more blows on a disciplined separatist majority in Holyrood than the traditional parties. Nor will it obviously benefit the pro-UK cause to have as divisive a figure as Galloway become the public face of opposition to the SNP, no matter how high his standing amongst the unionist hard core.

What to do

After decades in retreat, it is understandable that unionist voters are frustrated and looking for options. Nor is the rise of challengers always a bad thing – the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, for example, offers a coherent and under-represented position to the electorate, expands the unionist coalition somewhat, and has already sparked a necessary and overdue realignment on the part of the Welsh Conservatives.

All for Unity are not cast in this mould. Individual good ideas such as a Clarity Act do not justify their existence (and that would in any case be the business of Westminster). Their deliberate construction as a broad-church ‘alliance’ probably prohibits them from doing anything too distinctive, apart from hawking the easy-mode nationalist ‘unionism’ of cutting off awkward connections to national politics. All they seem set to do is get committed unionist voters to cast their ballots in a deeply inefficient way.

They aren’t the only party compromising the cause’s best interests to scare up the vote – some Scottish Tories are doing the same by legitimising the idea that a victory for Sturgeon next month means another referendum, undermining the Prime Minister’s right of refusal. But they have much longer odds of making a constructive contribution. As in almost nil.

So for any Tory voters reading this and wondering how to cast their vote, it’s simple. If you’re minded to vote tactically, head over to Scotland in Union’s calculator, put in your postcode, and back the strongest pro-Union candidate in your constituency. If not, and always in the lists, vote Conservative and Unionist.

Henry Hill: Is the Alba Party the separatist movement’s answer to Leave.EU?

1 Apr

Salmond rallies the discontented to Alba

It’s an unhappy feature of the electoral system used for the Scottish Parliament that it seems to be fiendishly complex to work out exactly what impact Alex Salmond’s new party is going to have in the upcoming elections, or on the longer-term future of the SNP.

There are several ways in which it could hurt the pro-UK cause. First, if Salmond can attract enough SNP voters on the lists it could game the system (as it openly states it aims to do) and deliver a separatist ‘supermajority’. Second, it could play the same role vis-a-vis the Nationalists as Leave.EU did for Vote Leave, providing a home for pro-independence voters turned off by Nicola Sturgeon’s emphasis on rejoining the EU and other ‘woke’ issues such as transgender rights.

On the other hand, it could make life tricky for the First Minister in the short term. Moderate success could see it deprive the SNP of an overall majority, undermining the moral force of their demands for a referendum and forcing Sturgeon to cooperate with another party to govern. Tellingly, despite all the scorn she has heaped on her predecessor, she has not yet ruled out working with Alba.

Salmond will also put a spotlight on an issue Sturgeon would much rather stay un-examined: what she will do if, or when, Boris Johnson refuses to grant her the Section 30 order for a referendum.

For years, the First Minister has strung her grassroots along with the promise that the next campaign is just around the corner. Her actual strategy is probably to play for time once again by taking the Government to court – after all, in the aftermath of Miller II who is to say that the Supreme Court won’t invent a new right for the Scottish Parliament?

Salmond, on the other hand, is talking about ‘immediate negotiations’ with London and saying that a referendum is not the only pathway to independence. Not only does such talk risk spooking moderate voters, but it also sucks Sturgeon into a debate on the mechanics of independence and leaves more space for the other parties, especially the new Labour leader Anas Sarwar, to focus on public services.

Coveney complains that he’s become a ‘bogey man’

The scramble to save the Northern Ireland Protocol is on. Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, now claims that although he has become a ‘Brexit bogeyman’ to unionists, he has in fact been squaring off against Brussels just as much as London.

Unionists in Northern Ireland, who are currently mounting a legal challenge to the Protocol, are unlikely to be sold on this version of events. To them, Coveney is the the outrider for the much more maximalist approach to Dublin’s demands on the border question that Leo Varadkar adopted when he succeeded Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

But it does suggest that the coalition that stitched up the Protocol – in Ireland, at least – that it cannot endure if it continues to alienate pretty much the entire unionist community of Ulster. This follows along with other development which would reduce the need for unionist cooperation in governing the Province, such as the Alliance Party’s newfound enthusiasm for the idea of voluntary coalition since the Unionist parties lost their overall majority at Stormont.

We previously reported that the appointment of Lord Frost signalled that the Government was determined to deliver meaningful change to the Protocol, and maybe he will find an improbable ally in Coveney. But it will be interesting to see if the EU is willing to show ‘solidarity with Ireland’ when that involves being flexible with their rules, rather than as inflexible as possible.

Abolish secure a spot in the Welsh leaders’ debate

If recent polling is to be believed, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party are on track to enter the Senedd for the first time in May. Their campaign has now received a further fillip when the BBC decided to include them in the official leaders debates.

The case for excluding them whilst including the Liberal Democrats was always extremely thin. Following defections, Abolish currently have more MSs than the Lib Dems and look almost certain to be the larger party in the next senedd, as the latter might actually be wiped out altogether.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the party can make the most of this spotlight. Their leader, Richard Suchorzewski, is not a sitting MS and the pressure is on to reform well. But if the party can establish itself, it may be able to assist its nascent sister party in Scotland, which is likewise contesting the Holyrood elections for the first time.

Henry Hill: Ross’s blitzkrieg didn’t bring down Sturgeon, but Fabius Johnson can yet deny her the prize

25 Mar

In a recent newsletter, Jonn Elledge wrote about the ‘peak-end’ rule – “a sort of mental shortcut which means we tend to judge experiences largely on how we felt at their most intense point and how we felt at the end”.

He was lamenting how this mental tendency will likely mean that Boris Johnson will ‘get away with’ the Government poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic because the event that’s going to most shape the popular memory of it will be the outstanding vaccine rollout.

This week unionists might have cause to worry that the same phenomenon might now benefit Nicola Sturgeon. After a torrid few weeks in which it looked as if her immediate political future might be in danger, the First Minister is now heading into the Scottish elections with some wind in her sails. Much to the surprise of most commentators – and especially her opponents – she was cleared of breaching the Ministerial Code by James Hamilton SC, the Scottish Government’s independent advisor on it.

Now he actually said it was up to MSPs to decide whether or not Sturgeon had misled them. And the Scottish Parliament’s own inquiry (which has a separatist majority if not an SNP one) was scathing – a “devastating catalogue of errors”, in the words of one journalist. But despite originally pledging to respect the outcomes of both, the First Minister has set about dismissing the latter as a partisan hatchet job whilst solemnly declaring she would have resigned if Hamilton had found against her.

If you believe that, of course, she has some ferries to sell you. And critics have rightly pointed out that Hamilton’s actual report has been redacted to such an extent that the man himself has insisted it go out with an explanatory (even exculpatory) note.

But such details aren’t likely to offset the brute fact that the flavour of the press coverage is ‘Sturgeon exonerated’, a problem compounded for the Conservatives because it meant their aggressive push for a no-confidence vote ended up leaving them “looking like mugs”, as the Daily Record put it.

However, despair is a unionist vice so it is important to remind ourselves that whilst it hasn’t immediately ended in a spectacular scalp, this snowballing series of scandals is still welcome evidence that the Scottish National Party is still subject to the laws of political mortality. As I noted for the Spectator this week:

“Johnson could easily justify ruling out a referendum until at least after the next general election, especially if his team start putting more effort into their arguments. Even assuming the government felt compelled to set one in train after that, it probably wouldn’t actually be held until 2025 or later. In that scenario, it is hard to see Sturgeon still being in post to lead her Party into that campaign.

“And without the great prize of being the woman who finally delivered Scottish independence, what incentive does she really have to slog through years of factional strife, SNP sex scandals, botched ferry contracts, and declining education outcomes?”

The game is still on, in other words, and defenders of the United Kingdom can’t afford to waste time slipping into a funk or on another round of desperate bargaining of the ‘more powers’ sort. The SNP’s domestic record is still woeful and shadowed by allegations of misconduct, and there are fresh signs that its internal divisions have not yet reached their nadir.

Fortunately for Boris Johnson, polling shows that Scottish voters are not keen on having a referendum in the next few years. The need to put right the damage of the Covid-19 pandemic joins the long list of others that the Prime Minister can employ to justify pushing back any second vote until at least after the next general election.

Not only will that force Sturgeon into an ugly confrontation with her base and make it harder for the Scottish Government to distract voters from its record, but it will also give the Government time to flex its new UKIM powers and develop other strategies such as the Union Connectivity Review and the extremely-belated Dunlop Report.

Interview with Douglas Ross: Sturgeon is not in the clear, and is part of a “conspiracy against getting out the truth”

24 Mar

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin.” So says Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, at the start of this interview.

He goes on to condemn “the conspiracy against getting out the truth” which runs through the Sturgeon-Salmond feud, with the SNP Government promoting “a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability”.

Ross discusses how the Scottish Nationalists can be beaten in the forthcoming Holyrood elections, the need for the Union to be defended “as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border”, and the case for devolution from Holyrood to local councils.

He says he is looking forward to campaigning with Boris Johnson in the Holyrood elections, but points out that contrary to the Nationalists’ propaganda, he, not Johnson, is the Conservative leader in Scotland.

ConHome: “James Hamilton has cleared the First Minister of breaking the ministerial code, but the Salmond Inquiry Committee says its work was severely hindered by the Scottish Government’s reluctance to produce key documents. What’s your reaction to these verdicts?”

Ross: “James Hamilton has expressed frustration that redacted information risked an ‘incomplete and at times misleading version of what happened’.

“And the Salmond Inquiry Committee confirms that Nicola Sturgeon’s government hindered their work by withholding key documents and only willingly giving documents ‘that would advance a particular position’.

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin. The findings of this parliamentary committee are damning of her and her government and expose a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability.  And at the heart of this, women who came forward with serious allegations have been completely let down by the whole process.

“The thought that no one should take any responsibility for the many failings in this process is unbelievable.”

ConHome: “The Salmond-Sturgeon quarrel is surely unintelligible to many people who don’t follow politics. Their sense will be of a row about the former’s private life and who knew what when. Why is it important?”

Ross: “Well first of all it is really difficult for people to follow. It’s been ongoing now for several years, since the allegations first arose.

“Then there was the launch of the Scottish Government’s harassment procedure, and then the response from Alex Salmond, who challenged that.

“And since then we’ve had accusation and counter-accusation from Team Salmond and Team Sturgeon.

“And I’m not supporting one over the other. I’m just trying to get to the truth in all this.

“And it’s very difficult to get through to the truth when an inquiry that Nicola Sturgeon agreed would be set up, a cross-party inquiry, chaired by an SNP MSP, where the Scottish Government agreed the remit, the membership, and all aspects of how the committee could go about their business.

“It has been baulked on I think now more than 50 occasions by the Scottish Government, in terms of getting crucial information out there.

“And I think where we’ve got to now is a committee report that’s published, that believes Nicola Sturgeon did mislead Parliament. I believe on numerous occasions she’s misled the Scottish Parliament and Scottish people.

“At the heart of this, two women have been let down by a procedure that did not allow their complaints to be fully investigated and heard.

“The people of Scotland have been let down by a First Minister who’s not been truthful.

“And the people of Scotland have also been let down by a First Minister who has continued with action against the advice of her own lawyers that has cost in excess of half a million pounds.

“So these are all reasons why Scottish Conservatives believe Nicola Sturgeon’s position is untenable.”

ConHome: “Just leaving aside the money, the denial of information to MSPs, the Scottish Government going after publications like The Spectator that put up the reports, do you believe Salmond’s claim that there’s a conspiracy against him in which Sturgeon is implicated?”

Ross: “No I don’t. I believe there’s a conspiracy against getting out the truth. Everything seems to revolve around secrecy. The Scottish Government have been forced, after votes in Parliament which they ignored, with other measures we forced them to release some of the legal advice they’d received, but my conspiracy is more focussed on why can’t we just get the truth, rather than Salmond saying he was stitched up, or Sturgeon saying don’t believe him.”

ConHome: “Like many others, we’re concerned that the SNP may win a majority in this year’s Holyrood elections. How likely do you think this is to happen?”

Ross: “Well I’ve said since August, since I became Scottish Conservative leader, I didn’t think an SNP majority was inevitable, and I didn’t think another independence referendum was inevitable.

“I don’t underestimate the challenge we face in Scotland. The SNP have significant support among those who will vote for the party they think has the best chance to deliver them independence.

“We know back in 2014 45 per cent of Scotland wanted to separate from the rest of the UK. Therefore they see the SNP, for all their other failures, as being the party that could best deliver that.

“So it’s always going to be a challenge against them. But we have seen in recent weeks a shift away from the SNP.

“This image of them being no better than any other political party, having been in government for too long, and being shrouded in secrecy and sleaze, is having an impact.

“And I think at a time, particularly during a global pandemic, when we still need the trust of the public to follow the advice the Government are issuing, it not only is so damaging for Scottish politics as a whole, it could have an impact on our recovery out of this pandemic, if people don’t feel they can trust the First Minister.”

ConHome: “We’re not only worried the SNP may win a majority. We’re also worried about what will happen if they don’t. Down here in London, in Westminster, the UK Government will go ‘Phew, that’s all right then! They haven’t won a majority – we can stop worrying about the Union and think about something else.’

“Are we right to be worried?”

Ross: “I think it’s a genuine concern. I think there’s been a real shift in the emphasis from the UK Government. We’ve seen it in recent weeks and months – more focus on the Union, and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.

“I again have been beating this drum since I became leader. I gave the controversial speech at my first Scottish fringe event at the party conference, saying you know, we really had to wake up to the challenges.

“And when I say we, I mean the Conservative MPs, supporters and people across the rest of the United Kingdom who in some form or other didn’t think that Scotland leaving the UK would have a big impact on them.

“Of course it would. It would affect the whole of the United Kingdom. That fabric of our Union weaves through us all whether we’re Scots, English, Welsh or Northern Irish.

“But I do think the case for remaining a strong part of the United Kingdom has to be made as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border, and I’m seeing promising signs with that, in terms of the Government wanting to invest directly into Scotland through local councils.

“The SNP throw up their arms and say this is disrespecting devolution. But devolution is having two Parliaments, and both Parliaments and both Governments should work together to improve the lives of people in Scotland.

“It’s typical of the SNP, who claim to speak for the whole of Scotland, which they absolutely don’t, to decry any attempt of the UK Government to show where they invest in Scotland, and I just want to see more of that, and certainly from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and everyone in the Cabinet I get the reassurance that they’re up for this fight.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that the Conservatives, the Conservative and Unionist Party, can’t save the Union on its own. It’s going to have to work with other Unionist parties, in particular with Labour.

“Is that right, and how easy is it to work with Labour given their difference on what the political solution should be?”

Ross: “Well I think it’s absolutely right. We saw in the 2014 referendum that the parties put down their political differences and worked together to achieve success, with 55 per cent of the population voting to remain in the United Kingdom.

“However, since then we’ve seen a Labour Party in Scotland that’s been decimated, that’s a shadow of its former self. And sadly I think their response has been to out-Nat the Scottish Nationalists.

“And that is never going to win them back the support they need. So I’ve made the offer and I made the offer to Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader at the time, that I would work with him if we could kick the SNP out of power.

“And he turned that offer down. When his replacements were standing as the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party I said to Monica Lennon and Anas Sarwar, would they work with me to get rid of this tired and failing SNP Government, and they both turned that down within 30 seconds.

“So I’ll continue to hold out that olive branch. I think it is a way forward, I think it is what people want in Scottish politics, for the parties to work together, get away from this division of the past and focus on our recovery in Scotland.

“I’ll continue to make that offer and I hope at some point the Labour Party wake up to their responsibilities and accept it.”

ConHome: “In your speech on 3rd October to the virtual Conservative Party conference you said that

“far too many members in England…do not value the importance of the Union to their own British identity… They too often see Britishness and Englishness as one and the same. These attitudes extend to how we govern our country.”

“Are those attitudes improved now that Dominic Cummings has left Downing Street?”

Ross: “Well I always said those comments were not directed at any one individual. And indeed they weren’t just directed at the Conservative Party.

“I think we saw from the Labour Party, who oversaw devolution with the referendum in Scotland in 1997, that obviously led to the first Scottish Parliament in 1999, from Whitehall almost a view of ‘devolve and forget’.

“As if we could just provide funding to Scotland and not worry about how that was spent.

“And what we’ve seen over the last few years of SNP control in Holyrood is significant financial support going to the Scottish Government, the latest budget this year is the highest budget ever delivered to the devolved Scottish Parliament.

“But we’re seeing our standards in education falling. We’re seeing hospitals being built that can’t take any patients. We’re seeing our economy, pre-Covid, more sluggish than other parts of the United Kingdom.

“So it was a wake-up call to those within Government and outwith that we have to get rid of this devolve and forget attitude.

“Somehow a narrative that the English don’t care what happens to Scotland or the Welsh don’t care or those in Northern Ireland don’t care actually only aids the Nationalists.”

ConHome: “Some questions about the way the devolution settlement is working in Scotland.

“First of all, do you agree that Parliament should in some respects have more powers – for example, that MSPs should be covered by parliamentary privilege?”

Ross: “Yes. So I believe there are – I set out in a speech I did to Onward recently – some suggestions for strengthening the accountability within the Scottish Parliament.

“This should be done on a cross-party basis, I’m not saying the Conservatives have all the answers to this issue.

“But I think it was particularly revealing, to people across the country, that it took a Member of Parliament standing up in the UK House of Commons to reveal information that was not able to be revealed to MSPs sitting on an inquiry looking into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints and the procedure they set up.

“I’ve already raised issues about the Lord Advocate in Scotland being the head of the prosecution service, and also a political appointment sitting round the Scottish Government Cabinet table.

“I also think we could learn from the UK Parliament in terms of electing select committee chairs. I’ve sat in both Parliaments and been on committees in both, and I think we have far more rigour in our investigations and our questioning with select committee chairs who are elected by the whole House rather than party appointments that we have in the Scottish Parliament.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that a central problem with the devolution settlement in Scotland is not that there’s too much devolution but that there hasn’t been enough.

“And on that theme, you’ve called for local councils to have more powers, the power to set business-rate-free zones and to build more railways, deliver universal broadband. Could you expand on that?”

Ross: “Yes, so first of all I’m not advocating for more powers to go to Holyrood. I don’t think people suggesting now just devolve some extra powers and that’ll stop people wanting independence is credible.

“And I also say to the SNP, if you continue to call for more powers for the Scottish Parliament, just start using the ones you’ve got.

“In terms of devolution, what I want to see is more devolution from the Scottish Parliament to local councils.

“I do believe that local councils are better at delivering many of these policies. I was a councillor for ten years.

“For many people now in Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood seem as distant as the UK Government and the UK Parliament did in London prior to 1997 when there were calls for devolution.”

ConHome: “Aberdeen Council is reported to be applying for grants directly from the Shared Prosperity Fund. Do you know how that’s going?”

Ross: “There’s been an awful lot of positive discussion. I’m in regular contact with Douglas Lumsden, Co-Leader of Aberdeen City Council, he’s one of our excellent candidates on the North East list for the election in May, and with Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, who sees this as a way forward.

“He can see the frustration of councils in Scotland, particularly those outwith the central belt.”

ConHome: “Do you believe that Westminster should deploy the powers it has: for example, the Political and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee could launch an inquiry into the conduct of the civil service in Scotland, over why laws seem to have been crafted especially to investigate Alex Salmond, even after the Head of Propriety and Ethics in Whitehall expressed discomfort.”

Ross: “I think we have to look very closely at how the Scottish Government civil service worked throughout this process, and obviously the head of the Scottish civil service is answerable to the head of the UK civil service.

“I also think there’s an opportunity for the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, which I sit on, to look into it. It’s chaired by an SNP member, so we may have some challenges in getting that into our future work programme, but absolutely, I think there is a clear role for scrutiny within the UK select committee system, following on from the report of the Scottish Parliament committee.”

ConHome: “Should the UK Government here do more to involve the Governments of the devolved administrations in their decision-making, over immigration, say, or trade deals?”

Ross: “Well I mentioned that in my Policy Exchange speech, and it was more just about more dialogue, it’s not saying direct decision making.”

ConHome: “At one point last year, Michael Gove was reported to think that just occasionally, there’d be a case for inviting Nicola Sturgeon and the leaders of the devolved administrations to sit in at Cabinet meetings. What do you think?”

Ross: “No I don’t think that would be particularly helpful. Clear, distinct subject matters which affect the whole of the UK such as travel arrangements, quarantine arrangements, restrictions that may differ north or south of the border or into Wales, are right to be focussed on a small committee, and I’ve sat in on a number of these committees when I was a Scotland Office minister, so I can see the value of them.

“I think inviting devolved leaders to actual Cabinet meetings is a step too far, and I’m not sure it would be reciprocated by offers of the Prime Minister to go to the Scottish Government Cabinet meetings or the Welsh Assembly Cabinet meetings.”

ConHome: “How substantial a problem for your election campaign this year is Boris Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland?”

Ross: “I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as an opportunity for me to continue to show that I’m the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. I am the leader standing for election to Holyrood.

“NIcola Sturgeon and the SNP are already using this in their leaflets, saying ‘vote for the SNP or vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party’.

“But the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His policies are having a positive impact in Scotland, such as the vaccine rollout; the levelling up funding will see investment into Scotland.

“But in terms of the running of the party here, our manifesto, our team, it’s led by me. I think that’s right for the Scottish Conservatives and it’s certainly the approach I’m taking into the election.”

ConHome: “Are you looking forward to Boris joining you on the campaign trail?”

Ross: “Yeah. It’ll be a very different campaign trail, so let’s be honest, he’s not going to be popping up every couple of days to do visits, and we’re all trying to get our head round exactly what this campaign’s going to look like.

“But I was at Political Cabinet last week, we had a good discussion on the election in Scotland, and obviously in Wales, and there’s big elections in England, we’ve got by-elections coming up as well, so the Prime Minister’s going to be busy all over the country.

“But we’re probably going to do an awful lot of it like this. It’ll be Zoom meetings. We’ll see how it all pans out.”

ConHome: “Do you know Oliver Lewis?”

Ross: “Yes.”

ConHome: “What was your take on him?”

Ross: “Yeah, I worked well with Oliver, first of all he was always extremely engaged with Scottish MPs during the Brexit negotiations, and then when for a short time he was the head of the Union Unit I spoke to him a number of times, and I think he had some really good things to offer.

“Clearly it didn’t work out, but he is someone I will still look at what he says and listen to what he says.”

ConHome: “It doesn’t make a difference that the Unit’s no longer there?”

Ross: “I don’t think so. Clearly the change in personnel was something that attracted quite a lot of media attention. I actually think the move to the Cabinet committee system, with senior members of the Cabinet, is a good thing, having the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Minister of the Cabinet Office, the Secretaries of State like Alister Jack, it’s a powerful committee.”

ConHome: “One of the things people know about you is that you’re a great football referee. What help is that to you in your present role? Because your role now is partisan, you’re on the pitch, you’re trying to wipe the floor with the opposition.”

Ross: “Well I don’t quite get onto the pitch, because I’m an assistant referee, just from the sidelines, and I’m not even doing that at the moment, I’ve got a hamstring injury.

“But I do think for political leadership it’s a good thing, because you’ve got to take instant decisions, based on what you see in front of you, knowing that that decision will not please everyone, in many cases my decision will please no one, and you’ve got to have a pretty tough skin to do it in the first place and to defend and stick by your decisions.”