- This is Ben Wallace’s third table-topping month (with 85 points his rating has barely moved), and a pattern is beginning to form below him – as Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi and Anne-Marie Trevelyan come in variously at second, third and fourth (with scores in the mid to low sixties). Both the first of those and now the second are being written up as potential leadership candidates.
- Priti Patel was bottom of the table last month on -17 points, having languished at the lower end of it for some time – not least because of the small boats issue. The Government now has a policy to deal with it, and her rating consequently jumps to 31 points, near the middle of the table.
- Boris Johnson was in the same zone last month, having been in negative ratings for the previous three, and is now back down again – third from bottom. Ukraine will have pushed him up last month; partygate will have pulled him down this. But the driver of his low scores is that the Government is too left-wing, at least in the view of many activists.
- Rishi Sunak plunged last month to third from bottom in the wake of the Spring Statement (on plus eight points). He drops to last place this month, coming in at minus five points, in the wake of the furore about his wife’s tax affairs and former non-dom status. It is perhaps surprising that his fall isn’t larger; it may even be that the worst is behind him – in this table at least.
- Last September, I reported that Dominic Raab had plummeted third from top in July to fourth from bottom in our Cabinet League Table. Today, he is back to sixth from top, having worked his way out of the relegation zone.
- I write this to offer comfort to enthusiasts for Rishi Sunak, who was eleventh last month, but now finds himself plunged to third from bottom, in the wake of a Spring Statement with which the majority of our panel is dissatisfied.
- Having managed the table for a long time, I know that what goes down can come up again – and vice-versa. Our respondents are very knowing, and many use the table as a form of running commentary rather than a means of permanent judgement.
- At the top, the changes are very marginal, with Steve Barclay’s fall of nine points from 64 to 55, and drop from second to fifth, being the largest movement in the top ten – and it’s not a very large one in the great scheme of events.
- At the bottom, Priti Patel falls into negative ratings after a month’s bad headlines over Ukrainian refugees. The Home Office is so permanently troubled that it’s hard to see her moving up towards the comfort of mid-table in the near future.
- Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is out of negative ratings, where he had been for three months running, and into the middle of the table. This is at once an impressive recovery from where he was and a lacklustre rating given his position as Prime Minister.
- Johnson will undoubtedly have gained from his handling of the Ukraine, which received an overwhelming thumbs up from our panel. Ninety-three per cent took a positive view of it and 58 per cent a negative one of Sunak’s Spring Statement.
Our monthly panel of Party members has become very knowing. It seems to me increasingly to use the Cabinet League Table to upscore and downscore Ministers on the basis of the month’s events. And so –
- Ben Wallace’s vigorous response to the crisis in eastern Europe, coming relatively soon after his mature conduct during the Afghanistan debacle, propels him upwards from 62 points to 80 points – and he displaces Liz Truss after her year-long reign at the top of the table. The Defence Secretary’s name has crept into the margins of future Party leadership speculation. It will now advance further.
- Truss herself is down from 74 points to 67 points. That’s a small drop and of almost no significance, but it may indicate that the Foreign Office, with its multilayered challenges, is a tougher proposition for the occupant than International Trade in the wake of Brexit, in which she was able to roll over a series of deals.
- Boris Johnson is still in negative ratings, but his score must be seen in the context of a positive total on Covid handling, and a change of mood about the toxicity of “partygate”. Last month, his rating was -34 points, a record low for him. This month, it is heading in the right direction.
- Another interesting Johnson indicator is the fall in support for his most vocal critic in this table – Douglas Ross. Last month, the latter was on 30 points. This month, he is in the black by a slender margin of six. The Prime Minister has his supporters as well as his critics. And they have marked the Scottish Tory leader down.
- Elsewhere, the movements tend to follow publicity, good and bad. So it is that Mark Spencer plunges even deeper into the red. That Jacob Rees-Mogg, ninth last month, plunges to fifth from bottom. That Sajid Javid gets a Covid bounce from twelfth to sixth. And that Michael Gove, who has had a quieter month, recovers to mid-table.
- Rishi Sunak’s score at 39 points is his lowest as Chancellor. One can cite individual reasons for this, such as the coming National Insurance rise. But it’s the big picture that matters. Many panel members clearly believe that the Government is taxing and spending too much, and pin at least some of the blame at the Chancellor’s door.
These results came in over the weekend, and so don’t take into account the Sue Gray report and yesterday’s Parliamentary statement. My best guess is that neither will help to improve the Prime Minister’s rating.
- Perhaps the only good news for Boris Johnson is that his score, woeful as it is, is nowhere near as dire as that of Theresa May in the spring of 2019 – when she broke the survey’s unpopularity record, coming in at a catastophic -75 points.
- Nonetheless, this is the Prime Minister’s second consecutive month in negative ratings, his third altogether, and his lowest total of the lot. The explanation? Parties, competence, Covid restrictions, Paterson, taxes and Net Zero, not necessarily in that order.
- Nadine Dorries is down from fourth (plus 61) to mid-table sixteenth (plus 25), Michael Gove from twelfth to sixth from bottom (plus 43 to plus 16) , and Sajid Javid from eighth to twelfth (plus 54 to plus 29). All are associated with support for Covid restrictions.
- Mark Spencer stays in the red and Priti Patel inches into it: in her case, the explanation is “small boats”. Liz Truss is top again, Ben Wallace is up from second to fifth, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Nadhim Zahawi are scoring well. Generally, there’s a drift down.
It is no surprise that Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, is at the forefront of the growing band of Tory MPs in open revolt against Boris Johnson over the ‘partygate’ affairs.
He did, after all, originally resign from the Government when the Prime Minister fought to keep Dominic Cummings in post after the Barnard Castle incidence (only to lose him in a courtier power-struggle over… the appointment of Allegra Stratton).
Even without that aggravating factor, there has never been much love between Johnson and the Scottish wing of the party, where he is near-universally viewed as a drag on their fortunes.
Perhaps more interesting is that he has also refused to back the Government’s proposals for vaccine passports. It makes sense; the Scottish Tories have been firmly opposed to the Scottish Government’s scheme. But it will only highlight that ‘Plan B’ seems to consist mostly of measures already in place in other parts of the UK – to little effect.
Donaldson reiterates threat to collapse Stormont
Sir Geoffrey Donaldson has once again warned that the future of Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions could be in doubt if “major changes” to the Northern Irish Protocol aren’t secured, according to the News Letter.
The paper reports the Democratic Unionist leader as saying that: “If the prime minister fails to act to safeguard the political institutions, then it will fall to my party to take all steps necessary to bring this issue to a head.”
Is the danger real? Donaldson’s opponents don’t seem convinced. The DUP might be unionist but it is not integrationist; bring the Assembly down over an intractable problem such as the Protocol and it might never come back. Sinn Fein generally stick to demands they can wring out of hapless Northern Irish Secretaries looking for good headlines.
But the fact that Donaldson himself is a Westminster MP could be a crucial variable: if Stormont does collapse, he won’t lose his parliamentary platform. Indeed Parliament (where Sinn Fein refuse to take their seats) will become even more important.
Ian Paisley Jr has also warned that the Prime Minister risks the break-up of the United Kingdom if he and Lord Frost are unable to secure real reform. The Sun also reports that there are “growing Cabinet concerns that the PM has ‘gone wobbly'”, following an apparent climbdown from the Government’s previously pugnacious position on triggering Article 16.
At the same time, ministers have rejected American efforts to link the lifting of steel tariffs to a resolution of the Protocol dispute. According to the FT, Penny Mordaunt dismissed the connection as a ‘false narrative’ in the House of Commons. The UK has instead threatened to impose tariffs on a wider range of American products, according to today’s papers.
Sturgeon faces backlash as Jack backs North Sea oil
Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to bring the Greens into her administration (sort of) was always going to require some concessions, even if the smaller party very often seem willing to function simply as SNP auxiliaries at Holyrood.
But she now faces a backlash from business groups after failing to back drilling in the Cambo oilfield after Shell, which had a 30 per cent stake in the project pulled out. From the Times:
“Reports over the weekend suggested that one of the reasons for Shell’s decision was a lack of enthusiasm or vocal backing for the project in Westminster after Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, stated her opposition.”
Perhaps in response, Alister Jack has come out of the blocks with strong support for the development. The Secretary of State points out that even in the event of a successful transition to Net Zero, fossil fuels will still be required for essential industries such as petrochemicals.
It also won’t hurt that North East Scotland, the heart of the oil and gas industry, is one of the Scottish Tories’ strongest regions and would be the most seriously affected by the job losses that would have to accompany a shuttering of the sector.
- Our first post-reshuffle Cabinet League Table suggests that the pieces are still settling on the board – at least as far as our members’ panel is concerned.
- The general pattern seems to be that those who did well out of the shuffle have done well in the ratings, that there’s concern about the uncertain economic future and the growing state…that activists are willing to make Ministers down if necessary, but that they’re mostly suspending judgement.
- Liz Truss’s rating remains broadly stable, but she opens up a 15 point gap at the top. That’s because Rishi Sunak is down by about ten points from second to fifth. That’s not a big drop – but we read it as a reflection of that nervousness about living standards and squeezed incomes.
- Elsewhere, Ben Wallace is up marginally, but enough to put him second in the table for the first time. David Frost is third. Nadhim Zahawi bounces straight in at fifth, Nadine Dorries at seventh, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan at ninth. Elsewhere, there’s not much movement in terms of scores…
- …Though Michael Gove is up by 15 points and Dominic Raab by 17, perhaps reflecting a post-reshuffle willingness to wipe the slate relatively clean…
- …But though no-one is in negative ratings, Priti Patel is now very exposed at third from bottom in the table. Much of that will be boats; some Insulate Britain and public disorder; some, police failings.
- Grant Shapps brings up the rear, doubtless drawing fire because of frustration about restrictions on travel abroad.
- The Prime Minister’s pre-conference position really is very poor: the best explanation we have is that he is the lightning conductor for activists’ unease over economic prospects and strategic direction.
- We’ve now put all Ministers who attend Cabinet in the table, as well as Ben Elliot, the co-party Chairman. Oliver Dowden is some 30 points ahead of him.
- Last month, Dominic Raab was third from top in our Cabinet League Table, on 73 per cent. This month, he drops by 21 places to fourth from bottom, coming in at 6 per cent and narrowly avoiding negative ratings. It’s one of the biggest falls ever in our table – almost on the scale of Theresa May’s dizzying fall from top of the table into negative territory in the wake of the bungled 2017 election.
- Meanwhile, Ben Wallace moves up from ninth, on 51 per cent, to fourth, on 64 per cent.
- The Westminster story of the last week or so has concentrated on Raab v Wallace – and this finding seems to show Conservative activists taking sides. Our take is that it’s more of a verdict on how British servicemen and the Foreign Office have reacted to events in Afghanistan; and on Wallace’s robust take on Joe Biden and, perhaps, Pen Farthing. The Defence Secretary seems to be morphing into a politician who, like the Prime Minister himself, is seen by many people outside Westminster as authentic.
- Boris Johnson drifts up from fourth from bottom on three per cent to seventh from bottom on 13 per cent.
- Otherwise there’s little change in the table, but it’s worth closing by having a look at Priti Patel. Last month, she was tenth from bottom on 26 per cent. This month, she is eight from bottom on 18 per cent. As recently as May, she was among the top members of the table: sixth from top on 64 per cent. You will have your own view on the reasons for her fall. Ours is: channel boats.
The table now seems to be in set pattern established soon after Britian’s vaccination success became apparent.
The same Ministers remain at its top and the same too at its bottom. Consider the case of Kwasi Kwarteng, up a place this month at fourth: his score, 64.7, is exactly the same as it was then.
There are a mix of small score and table movements up and down, but none of them worth expending many words about – though we pause for the Ministers at the very top and bottom of the table.
At the top, there is Liz Truss, on her fourth table-topping month – and a record high of 89 per cent.
That’s a reflection, in a minor key, of her decisive handling of the Equalities brief and, in a major one, of the rapid succession of trade deals: most of them rollovers, true – but accomplished more speedily than some anticipated.
At the bottom, there is Gavin Williamson – on minus 27 per cent.
That’s a dreadful rating, but less so than the -43 per cent he scored last month, or this – 36 per cent and -48 per cent during the previous ones.
Our reading is that his early and emphatic support for free speech during the Batley Mohammed cartoons row, which we haven’t heard the last of, accounts for his improvement.
“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?”
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.”
Do we need a judge-led inquiry into the Salmond affair?
The formal inquiry into the Scottish Government’s woeful mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations against Alex Salmond is entering its final weeks, and the SNP is continuing to fight it every step of the way.
Peter Murrell, the Nationalists’ chief executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, has declined a request from MSPs to return and try to explain the important discrepancies between his initial evidence and that of his wife – the Tories have now threatened a parliamentary vote.
Meanwhile MSPs have also James Wolffe QC, the Lord Advocate, to ask whether the Scottish Government has been censoring its evidence to the committee on political grounds, and one of the First Minister’s senior advisers has been accused of saying criminal proceedings would ‘get’ Salmond where the internal probe had failed.
There’s no doubt that something reeks about the whole affair. And it may be that Alex Salmond is able to land some serious blows when he appears before MSPs. But there is growing concern in some quarters that Scottish devolution’s checks and balances aren’t adequate to holding the Scottish Government to account. The Spectator puts it thus:
“The devolved government in Edinburgh is easily the least scrutinised ministry anywhere in the UK, if not further afield. The Scottish parliament lacks the structural robustness of the House of Commons. There is no revising chamber. Committee chairs are handpicked by party whips and there is a near-absence of checks and balances on any executive.”
That’s why the magazine is calling for a judge-led inquiry into the whole thing. Earlier in the week, Stephen Daisley made the case in more detail. For him, the crucial point is that seven of the nine MSPs serving on the current Holyrood committee are not legally trained. This is a fatal flaw in a body charged with forensically investigating a complex legal issue, and to his mind raises the question of whether or not the whole thing was designed to fail by the Scottish Government.
He concludes that: “The only way forward is for the Holyrood inquiry to be dissolved and for parliament to pass legislation requiring ministers to establish a judge-led public inquiry into this entire saga.” But will the Scottish Parliament be ready to take that step?
Downing Street shakes up the Union Unit
A surprising development this week was the sudden departure of Luke Graham, the former MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, as head of Downing Street’s Union Unit.
He is apparently moving north to assist the Scottish Conservatives ahead of the upcoming Scottish elections and being replaced by Oliver Lewis, a Vote Leave veteran who apparently enjoys the monicker ‘Sonic’. The FT reports that Lewis “is said by colleagues to have wanted “a clean slate” and to build a new team.” Other reports float other reasons: some suggest that Graham didn’t build alliances in government, others that he wasn’t given sufficient authority to actually do his job and direct Union policy.
What isn’t yet clear is what the change of personnel means in terms of policy. Apparently the Prime Minister wants a ‘change of tone’ when it comes to Scotland, but what does that mean? We can only hope it has nothing to do with Michael Gove’s recent meeting with Gordon Brown, and doesn’t presage any change in his well-justified policy of refusing a second referendum.
But the evidence so far is hopeful. In fact, this week the Government got more pro-active in its efforts to try and use its recent successes on the Covid-19 front to undo some of the damage wrought by its earlier failures in tackling the pandemic.
Highlighting the fact that the Scottish Government’s vaccine rollout has fallen behind the rest of the UK, Alister Jack wrote to Sturgeon to offer HM Government support. There followed a row when the Ministry of Defence announced that the Army would be taking an expanded role in the jabs programme north of the border, amidst fears that current efforts had created a ‘postcode lottery’. Gove took up the ‘stronger together’ theme in an op-ed for the Sun.
Downing Street had a further fillip this week when new analysis suggested that the economic cost of leaving the United Kingdom would weigh three times more heavily on Scotland than those associated with Brexit, offering them a useful line of counter-attack against the SNP’s efforts to woo No/Remain voters.
In the meantime there is the usual brace of stories about SNP misgovernment. Its response to an inquiry into the mishandling of a high-profile ferry contract has been criticised, whilst the Courier reports that school teaching materials featuring the Nationalists’ logo have been branded ‘politically biased’. There was also the sacking of Joanna Cherry, which I covered earlier in the week.