Henry Hill: Salmond inquiry warns Scottish Government not to destroy any evidence

Also: Labour hint at laws compelling private businesses to deal in Welsh; SNP divided over ‘soft indy’ call; and DUP hold their line on the backstop.

Salmond inquiry warns ministers not to shred evidence

The Holyrood probe into the Scottish Government’s mishandling of allegations against Alex Salmond has warned ministers and civil servants not to damage or destroy any evidence, the Daily Telegraph reports.

A cross-party group of nine MSPs decided at their very first meeting that they expected Nicola Sturgeon’s administration to retain all “relevant documentation”. They have also decided to defer formal hearings until after legal proceedings against the former First Minister have concluded.

Linda Fabiani, a Nationalist legislator, has been confirmed as convener of the inquiry after the SNP rejected another round of pleas from opposition parties to relinquish control of the post.

In other news, Sturgeon has also been criticised this week for undertaking another overseas ‘jaunt’, according to the Scotsman. The First Minister was in France – where she took the time to tell the Assembly that Westminster ‘ignores Scotland’ – but opposition parties have criticised her for spending so much time and taxpayers’ money on trips when foreign policy remains reserved to London.

Last week, Stephen Daisley set out in the Spectator how the British Government could curb such behaviour – ministers would be well advised to consider such proposals.

Welsh Government hints at laws forcing companies to deal in Welsh… if they can justify it

Eluned Morgan, the Welsh Government’s minister for the Welsh language, has hinted that it may in future introduce laws compelling private businesses to conduct business in Welsh.

However she said that it was up to Welsh speakers to make better use of existing services in the language before such steps could be taken.Wales Online reports:

“But she pointed to the low use of Welsh-language services in the public sector. She cited figures from Bridgend council where almost 10% of people in the county speak Welsh, but only 0.2% of phone calls from the public – 301 out of 160,528 – were in Welsh last year. “It’s difficult for us to sell the need to do that to the private sector,” she said.

Baroness Morgan, who placed third in Welsh Labour’s recent leadership election, also warned that if requirements became too burdensome they might deter investment in the principality. She was also defending the decision to ditch a major planned shake-up of Welsh language provision, including the scrapping of the post of Welsh Language Commissioner.

SNP divided over ‘soft indy’ call

Andrew Wilson, a key adviser to Sturgeon, this week called on the SNP to push for the “softest of all” forms of independence in order to try and woo the swing voters needed to win another referendum, the Scotsman reports.

Wilson was recently in charge of the so-called ‘Growth Commission’, the SNP’s effort to create a new economic case for separation after their White Paper was discredited. Kevin Hague made short work of his findings, which has perhaps helped spur Wilson towards a safety-first ‘project reassurance’ approach.

One feature of his proposals is caps in public spending during the first years of independence, and a broader recognition of “the level of integration and all the ties that have bound us for centuries”.

But his contribution has provoked a backlash – one which maps onto the broader divisions opening up within the Party. Joanna Cherry QC, a high-profile Nationalist MP, led those arguing that Brexit required the SNP to go full-tilt for independence. Cherry is an ally of the embattled Salmond, who has latterly positioned himself as the leader of the more ‘fundamentalist’ wing of the separatist movement.

The ongoing decay of the Nationalists’ once phalanx-like internal discipline has prompted some commentators to suggest that Sturgeon, who only a few years ago appeared mistress of all she surveyed north of the border, may be on the way out.

Dodds tells DUP conference that no deal remains better than a bad one

There’s no sign yet of the Democratic Unionists softening their Brexit stance after Nigel Dodds, their leader at Westminster, told a party conference that no deal remained preferable to the Party than a bad one.

The News Letter reports Dodds as saying that the Government can only count on the DUP’s support on the Meaningful Vote if “necessary changes” are made to the backstop.

In related news, Angela Merkel apparently expressed concern about Ireland’s hard-line position on the border question during a phone call to Leo Varadkar in January, according to the Belfast Telegraph. The outgoing German Chancellor was reportedly worried that Dublin’s stance was undermining the EU’s negotiating position.

Henry Hill: Trimble raises over £10,000 for legal challenge to the backstop

Also: SNP insist on leading Holyrood inquiry into Sturgeon’s handling of Salmond allegations; and Ulster Unionists call for Direct Rule in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Architect of the Belfast Agreement rallies support for challenge as UUP call for direct rule

The News Letter reports that Lord Trimble, the Northern Irish peer who helped negotiate the Belfast Agreement, has managed to raise more than £10,000 to mount a legal challenge against the mooted ‘backstop’.

An appeal by the “informal group” supporting his efforts has apparently elicited a strong response, backed by an online crowdfunding effort.

Trimble, who served as First Minister of the Province whilst leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, backed Brexit and has been a public opponent of the Government’s approach to Northern Irish issues during the Brexit negotiations – particularly its habit of giving false credence to Dublin’s assertions that the Agreement required an invisible border.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the legal basis for the challenge is set out in this Policy Exchange paper from Lord Bew, who also set out his thinking in the News Letter  and on this website.

Outside Trimble’s circle there is a great deal of scepticism about his case’s chances of success. However, that one of the two men who won the Nobel Prize for the Belfast Agreement felt moved to take this step illustrates once again the depth and breadth of political unionism’s opposition to Dublin’s demands in the Brexit negotiations.

All of this comes in a week when the Democratic Unionists sent out their own, somewhat contradictory signals over the backstop.

Whilst the Financial Times reported that Arlene Foster was hinting at ‘flexibility’ over making a deal work, Sammy Wilson – the DUP’s Brexit spokesman and most vocal Brexiteer – declared that the party would vote against “any” backstop proposal.

He added that Eurosceptics had been “surprised and annoyed” when the Prime Minister used a speech in Belfast to reiterate her commitment to the backstop – in the same week that the Times reported Angela Merkel’s intention to try to pressure the Irish Government into softening its own stance. Meanwhile Jacob Rees-Mogg told a DUP meeting that even a no-deal departure need not require a hard border.

In commentary this week, Ben Lowry claimed that it was a “massive failure of civic unionism” that the backstop got so far with so little criticism; Henry Newman set out 12 reasons the backstop makes “no sense at all”; and Eilis O’Hanlon alleged that Ireland was in the “grip of Anglophobia“.

Labour vote against SNP-led inquiry into Salmond

Scottish Labour yesterday voted against plans for a Scottish Parliament inquiry into the botched handling of the allegations against Alex Salmond – because the Nationalists would lead it.

The Guardian reports that under Holyrood’s rules the SNP is entitled to chair the next committee established, and that Nicola Sturgeon has declined the option of relinquishing control. Moreover, she has appointed to it four ex-ministers who served in her predecessor’s administration.

In an attempt to reassure MSPs and regain cross-party support, the Nationalists highlighted that one of these, Linda Fabiani, is currently Deputy Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. But despite voting for the proposals alongside the Liberal Democrats and Greens, the Conservatives insisted that they would still prefer the governing party to cede the leadership of it to another group.

Elsewhere this week Derek Mackay, the Scottish Government’s Finance Secretary, insisted that his party was united around a controversial new parking tax he included in his budget to win the support of the Scottish Greens, after a Nationalist MSP had to perform a very public u-turn on the subject. Earlier this week business leaders said that they had been “humiliated” and “dismayed” by the raft of new tax measures the left-wing, separatist-inclined party had managed to extract from the Scottish Government.

Ulster Unionists call for direct rule in the event of a no-deal Brexit

Robin Swann, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has said that Theresa May must introduce proper direct rule over Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal departure from the European Union, according to the News Letter.

The North Antrim MLA said that the Province would require “political leadership and direction” to navigate the challenges posed by such a scenario. He added that the Prime Minister had apparently been extremely reluctant at their meeting to discuss progress towards restoring Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions.

Ulster has been run by its civil service, operating on effective autopilot and without direct political accountability, since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly in January 2017.

Karen Bradley has been criticised for saying that getting the devolved institutions back on their feet was her “top priority” despite the dearth of any pro-active efforts by the British Government to do so.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon warns SNP to brace for early election if budget falls

Also: DUP urge Government to adopt more aggressive approach to EU negotiations; Cardiff Conservative councillor reinstated; and more.

Sturgeon warns SNP to brace for early election if Budget falls

Nationalist officials have been told to prepare for an early Holyrood election if the Scottish Government fails to pass its Budget today, according to the Scotsman.

The SNP apparently enter today’s crucial vote without having yet secured a majority in the Chamber, meaning they risk defeat on their spending plans for the year ahead. Alex Salmond threatened a snap election when his minority administration lost its 2009 budget, although his successor is being more conciliatory today.

Derek Mackay, the Finance Secretary, has been wooing the hard-left Scottish Greens, whose demands reportedly include a further hike to income tax north of the border. Such a move would be grist to the mill of the Tories, who are already attacking the so-called ‘tax gap’ created by the Nationalists’ divergence from Westminster policies.

However, Nicola Sturgeon’s motives may not be entirely related to this: there are also suggestions that she needs, or at least wants, a fresh mandate from the electorate to demand another referendum on Scottish independence. (The divisions arising from the previous one are helping to box her party in on the budget question: the separatist Greens are currently the only viable deal partner for the SNP, who can no longer woo unionist MSPs as they did before 2011.)

Following the fallout from Salmond’s arrest, which we covered last week, the First Minister has been forced to insist that his fall will not overshadow the broader movement for breaking up the UK. Her party came under fresh criticism this week after an SNP politician was chosen to chair an inquiry into how the Scottish Government botched its handling of complaints against the former First Minister. There have even been concerns that saturation coverage of the case may impede a fair trial.

On that front, this week a Nationalist MSP warned his party not to try to bounce the electorate into a second referendum.

Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s defence spokesman, warned his colleagues against simply re-running the same ‘Yes’ campaign that was defeated in 2014, warning that the party needed to comprehensively review its case for independence (this week export figures highlighted once again the paramount importance of UK trade to Scotland) and consider the timing of any new referendum very carefully.

DUP throw weight behind ‘Malthouse Compromise’

The Government has been accused of trying to block moves to introduce abortion reform to Ulster (via amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill) in order to keep its Democratic Unionist allies on-side.

This comes as the Northern Irish party makes a fresh effort to push the Government to adopt its own, very aggressive approach to political negotiations in an effort to exploit what it sees as a new ‘logical flaw’ in the EU’s backstop position – namely a very obvious split between Brussels and Dublin over what will happen to the border in the event of a no-deal exit.

In related news, security experts have reportedly rubbished Leo Varadkar’s warnings that troops might need to be deployed in the event that Britain leaves the EU without the backstop in place, and Dominic Raab has attacked the Taoiseach for allegedly leaking falsehoods from confidential meetings between the then-Brexit Secretary and the Irish Government.

The DUP have also thrown their weight behind the so-called ‘Malthouse Compromise’ this week, and their votes secured the Brady Amendment.

Cardiff Conservative councillor in row over homeless’ tents

A Tory councillor was suspended – and then reinstated – from the Conservative group on Cardiff City Council this week after making controversial comments about homeless people’s tents.

Kathryn Kelloway attracted huge ire after she tweeted to urge Huw Thomas, the council leader, to ‘tear down’ tents belonging to homeless people in the city centre. She then attacked her critics as “virtue signallers” who were unrepresentative of public opinion on the subject.

However, she was reinstated after a meeting which confirmed that removing the tents remains Conservative policy – and that the current Labour administration in city hall had expressed similar concerns, albeit in different language, that distributing tents was actually cutting the number of people the council was getting off the streets.

Kelloway herself defended her tweets, arguing that there was more than enough hostel accommodation in Cardiff to cater to the entire homeless population and thus there was “no reason for anyone to sleep rough here”.

Divisions deepen inside SDLP over merger plans

The News Letter reports that proposals for Northern Ireland’s smaller, more moderate nationalist party to merge with one from the republic are a source of increasing tensions.

Senior figures, including ex-leader Mark Durkan, have refused to publicly endorse plans for a partnership with Fianna Fail, whilst one former MLA warned that it would make unionists wary of working with the party in Stormont.

Meanwhile the Northern Irish Office is hiring a strategist to try to break the logjam and get the devolved government back on its feet, according to the Belfast Telegraph. This comes after Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State, had to bring forward a direct-rule budget for the Province for the third consecutive year.

In other SDLP news, the party helped to deliver a vote on Londonderry council condemning the recent car-bombing. The motion passed by only a single vote after Sinn Fein and independent republican councillors tabled a much weaker one which only ‘opposed’ – but did not ‘condemn’ – the action. Some of those arrested in the wake of the attack are members of a new, unregistered republican party.

Henry Hill: Salmond arrested ministers get tough with Sturgeon

Also: Car bombing in Londonderry sparks concerns of ‘Brexit violence’ as SDLP announce partnership with Fianna Fail.

Salmond arrested as SNP saga takes latest extraordinary turn

Alex Salmond has been arrested by Police Scotland and is due in court this afternoon, the Scotsman reports. It is not yet known what he has been charged with.

This is the latest twist in the extraordinary saga gripping the SNP, which I provided an overview of in this column last week. A grievous split has emerged between Salmond ahd his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, over the handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against the former First Minister.

He sued the Scottish Government – and won – over claims that its internal inquiry was biased by the fact that the civil servant put in change of the investigation had previous contact with the complainants. There are now several concurrent inquiries into what went on, including those being conducted by the Scottish Parliament and the Information Commissioner’s Office, who are pursuing another Salmond allegation: that the details of the inquiry into his conduct were deliberately leaked.

Seemingly on the front foot, earlier this week he offered to end the Nationalists’ “uncivil war” whilst urging the First Minister to start pushing hard for a second referendum. This reflects a longer-standing split within the SNP between gradualists and ‘fundies’ – Salmond has gradually become the de facto leader of the latter group since losing office in 2014.

Whilst Sturgeon does appear to have been pushed into playing the ‘indyref’ card in a bid to distract from her party’s internal divisions, a bullish British Government doesn’t appear inclined to grant her one. Theresa May reportedly issued her “most strident rejection yet” of any such demand, whilst the Times reports that ministers are going to be playing hardball with the Scottish Government henceforth. “There is going to be a newfound hardness to negotiations with the Nats from now on”, according to one of their sources.

Moreover Alyn Smith, a Nationalist MEP, has said on the record that the party is not yet ready for a new referendum. Not only has it not yet properly addressed the issues which bedevilled its 2014 campaign – a much-vaunted ‘Growth Commission’ has sunk without trace – but Brexit also throws up new challenges, such as the prospect of a hard Anglo-Scottish border.

This latter fact is why, as we noted in 2017, some in the SNP believe that a soft Brexit is absolutely essential to keep independence on the table.

Londonderry attacks spark allegations of ‘Brexit violence’

The spectre of dissident Republican terrorism re-emerged in Northern Ireland this week after a car bomb was detonated outside a courthouse in Londonderry. Two vans were subsequently hijacked by masked men shortly afterwards, leading to concerns about the possibility of a sustained campaign.

Although Karen Bradley urged people to refrain from drawing casual links to Brexit, Lord Adonis was swift to blame the Government for being too distracted by it to give Northern Irish issues the attention they needed.

The Financial Times reports that the attacks are being blamed on the ‘New IRA’, which formed in 2012 and has already killed a couple of prison officers. Apparently the police received a ten-minute warning about Saturday’s bomb.

Politicians from the Democratic Unionist Party have also urged Bradley to clarify comments she made suggesting that the defeat of May’s Withdrawal Agreement would threaten the legal basis of peace funding to the Province.

In other Ulster news, Margaret Ritchie has said that she doesn’t expect any significant exodus of members from the Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP) when it formally announces plans to merge with Fianna Fail, a major party in the Republic. According to the Irish Independent the new ‘partnership’ will reportedly involve FF canvassing for the SDLP whilst it continues to compete under its own name. The two parties will also collaborate more closely on policy.

Henry Hill: The Salmond-Sturgeon standoff is costing the SNP its cohesion at a crucial moment

A party which usually operates with an almost eerie level of phalanx-like discipline is struggling to contain a split at the very top.

Last week this column led on the unfolding drama wracking the Scottish National Party after Alex Salmond mounted a successful legal challenge against the Scottish Government led by his party.

The court upheld the former First Minister’s complaint that an official inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct, levelled against him by two female civil servants, was unfairly skewed against him. Lord Pentland ruled that it had been “procedurally unfair” and “tainted by apparent bias”.

Now Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor, finds herself having to handle not one, not two, but three investigations into issues surrounding the botched inquiry, conduct amidst a deepening rift between her supporters and those of her predecessor.

First, the First Minister has acquiesced to demands from opposition parties that she submit herself for investigation over whether or not she has breached the Ministerial Code. Second, MSPs at Holyrood are to hold their own inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the investigation of complaints against Salmond. Third, the Information Commissioner’s Office have passed a complaint from Salmond about the initial leak of the Scottish Government inquiry to their criminal investigations desk.

Add in the Scottish Government’s own inquiry into how it so mishandled the investigation into Salmond, and the oft-overshadowed Police Scotland investigation into the original allegations against the former First Minister, and you have a total of five.

The root of the scandal is the fact that Sturgeon held a series of off-the-record meetings with Salmond, without officials present, after the allegations had been lodged against him and whilst the investigation was underway, in what opposition parties have called an “astounding lapse in judgement“. Fresh evidence suggests that the role of Liz Lloyd, Sturgeon’s chief of staff, will shortly be in the spotlight too.

Another issue, and the one which caused the inquiry against Salmond to be ruled unlawful, is that one of the investigating officers had counselling both of the complainants, a clear conflict of interest. The subsequent court defeat cost Scottish taxpayers £500,000, and as the relevant appointment was made by Leslie Evans, Scotland’s top civil servant, there is mounting pressure on her to step aside.

Meanwhile relations between the two leading Nationalist politicians of their generation are getting worse by the day. First Salmond’s supporters warned of a ‘conspiracy’ against him and claimed that Lloyd tried to use the allegations to dissuade him from standing for election.

Sturgeon, for her part, has accused her former mentor of waging a “smear campaign” against her. Exasperation with Salmond amongst her supporters has been mounting since he lost his Gordon seat at the 2017 general election, after which he took a controversial talk show slot on RT which was widely considered to bring him – and by association, the Nationalist cause – into disrepute.

Jim Sillars, the former SNP deputy leader, has warned that the party is paying the price for allowing cults of personality to build up around both Salmond and Sturgeon during their times as first minister. The result is that the Nationalists, who usually operate with phalanx-like discipline and total command from the centre, are losing cohesion at just the moment when another opportunity to revive their push for independence might (only might) have been possible.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon under fire after Salmond wins case against her government

Also: Scottish and Welsh Labour re-admit AM and councillor in antisemitism rows; and SDLP look south to merger with major Republic party.

Sturgeon humiliated as Salmond wins case against her Government

Nicola Sturgeon is under mounting pressure to reveal the details of private conversations she had with Alex Salmond about allegations of sexual harassment against him, the reports.

This comes after the First Minister was forced to issue a “humiliating apology” after her predecessor won a legal challenge to the way the Scottish Government had handled the complaints. The Telegraph reports:

“The judge Lord Pentland ruled the inquiry was “procedurally unfair” and “tainted with apparent bias” after it emerged the investigating officer had “prior involvement” with the women before they complained.”

As a result of what Salmond calls the “abject surrender” of the Scottish Government he has been awarded costs, which apparently run to £500,000. He has also demanded that Leslie Evans, Sturgeon’s seniormost civil servant, resign. The Scotsman reports that Evans has apologised but has no plans to quit, and that the First Minister has given the mandarin her support. The Timesdedicated an editorial has to calling for Evans’ scalp, accusing her of “an egregious lapse of judgement”.

Jackson Carlaw, the interim leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has announced that the Tories are going to push for a committee of the Scottish Parliament to investigate why Sturgeon met with Salmond five times, including two at her home in Glasgow, whilst insisting that she had not interfered in the investigation. She has also now admitted to not informing the Permanent Secretary about at least one of these.

Welsh and Scottish Labour re-admit anti-Semites

Not the biggest stories of the week, but in light of Rachel Riley’s attack on Jeremy Corbyn for “sharing a bed with holocaust deniers and virulent anti-Semites”, two stories this week serve as an unhappy reminder of how far through Labour this problem runs.

First, the BBC reports that a Labour member of the Welsh Assembly has been re-admitted to the party after having made “offensive” remarks about Jews, despite the fact that the party has not yet concluded its investigation into the incident. Jenny Rathbone apparently suggested that the security fears of the congregation of a Cardiff synagogue could be “in their own heads”.

She also said she was “uncomfortable” with synagogues turning into “fortresses”, adding that a “siege mentality” probably played a significant role. Michael Rose, the Chief Rabbi, branded the remarks “extremely offensive”.

Meanwhile in Scotland the Jewish Chronicle reports that Labour have re-admitted a councillor who directly peddled an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Mary Bain Lockart claimed that a joint front page by the UK’s three main Jewish newspapers – organised to signal the strength of feeling about antisemitism in the Labour Party – was a Mossad plot to discredit Corbyn.

An ex-Labour MP who originally complained about the post said the decision to re-admit Lockart illustrated that Labour was not a safe space for the Jewish community.

Fianna Fail and SDLP propose merger

Northern Ireland’s smaller, more moderate nationalist party is looking to merge with one of the major parties in the Republic of Ireland in a bid to inject some life into the flagging alternative to Sinn Fein.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which was Ulster’s pre-eminent nationalist party during the Troubles until it was eclipsed – along with its unionist counterpart, the Ulster Unionists – by the rise of the DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly, is reportedly preparing to subsume itself into Fianna Fail, long deemed the Republic’s ‘natural party of government’.

According to the Irish Times the proposal would result in “one all-island party which will be called Fianna Fáil” – which has prompted Margaret Ritchie, a former SDLP leader and Member of Parliament, to say on the record how much she would regret the disappearance of her party’s distinct brand and identity.

Lord Empey, who as leader of the Ulster Unionists led his party into their ill-fated alliance with the Conservatives at the 2010 general election, warned Colum Eastwood, the SDLP’s current leader, that he might be ushering in the “obliteration” of his party. It’s internal coalition might fracture and only a smaller part of its already waning vote and membership end up inside Fianna Fail’s tent.

In other Irish news, new polling suggests that Irish people believe that the backstop will make a ‘united Ireland’ more likely – which perhaps explains why the DUP continue to believe Theresa May’s deal poses a greater threat to the Union than ‘no deal’.