Henry Hill: MSPs concerned that Scottish Government spent tens of thousands ‘preparing’ witnesses

14 Jan

Taxpayers face new £55,000 bill to prep civil servants for Salmond hearings

On Monday, I wrote about the latest twist in the ‘Alex Salmond saga’ which is gripping Scottish politics. The former First Minister has made explosive allegations against his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, to the effect that she has broken the Ministerial Code and misled the Scottish Parliament. If substantiated, they could end her career.

The First Minister already seems to be in a potentially tricky position. Salmond claims to have several witnesses who can corroborate his version of events, whereas Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell (who also happens to be the SNP’s Chief Executive) have contradicted each others’ testimony.

Now the Daily Telegraph reveals that Scottish taxpayers stumped up almost £55,000 to help “prepare” six senior civil servants who gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry into the affair, sparking concerns from astonished MSPs that these witnesses might have been ‘coached’. As the paper reports:

“Staff logs released in response to a Freedom of Information request also show that witnesses spent several hours preparing for sessions, only to then face criticism for “forgetting” crucial details, giving misleading evidence, or dodging questions. Despite the extensive and costly preparation, and appearing under oath, four of the six civil servants were forced to correct or clarify their evidence after their appearances.”

Salmond himself has also hit out at the expense, saying that “the cost of the cover-up continues to mount”. MSPs are of course investigating because he ended up being awarded over £500,000 in costs after the courts ruled that the Scottish Government’s initial inquiry into him was unlawful and potentially biased.

The Telegraph also reports that the ex-SNP leader is wrangling with lawyers over whether or not he can release certain documents he obtained during his trial. Salmond says that if he is not allowed to do so, it may render him unable to fulfil his oath of truthfulness in front of MSPs.

In the meantime, the Nationalists’ posture of extreme defensiveness towards the whole thing is unchanged. Having frequently stonewalled the inquiry and refused to release evidence, now John Swinney, the SNP’s deputy leader, has refused to broaden the scope of the inquiry into his boss.

According to the Herald, a cross-party group of MSPs on the Holyrood committee wanted the Scottish Government to formally broaden the scope of the investigation being conducted by James Hamilton, the independent advisor on the Code, to address the specific allegations levelled by Salmond. But whilst Sturgeon has said that he can explore ‘any issue’, Swinney’s refusal to officially sanction the broader investigation suggests they are not nearly so relaxed as the First Minister would like people to believe.

There were also some interesting stories on the health front. First, the Sunday Mail revealed that the SNP’s £500 bung to NHS workers is being paid for out of the Covid-19 grant from Westminster. This has been attacked because it will go to “highly paid doctors and health service ­managers” and not low-paid frontline workers outwith the NHS.

Second, the Times reports that claims by Jeane Freeman, the Nationalist health minister, that the UK Government had ‘back-ended’ Scotland’s vaccine shipments are not borne out by the data. Earlier this week, my colleague Charlotte revealed that SNP members are amongst the least likely to take the vaccine, and most likely to worry that it will prove unsafe or ineffective, of any political group.

Nor have the other divisions within the SNP gone away whilst this drags on. This week Joanna Cherry, a high-profile Nationalist MP and ally of Salmond, made headlines by urging separatist activists to prepare alternative pathways to independence in the event that the British Government continues to refuse to grant a re-run of the 2014 vote. This reflects growing grassroots frustration with Sturgeon’s gradualist, by-the-book approach which could yet boil over if the First Minister finds herself politically wounded, yet in office and deprived of a plebiscite, after the upcoming Scottish elections.

Johnson and Gove to meet and set Union strategy

On the subject of the referendum, the Herald reports that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove “are set to hold private talks on how to give the Union a “big push” in the face of rising support in opinion polls for Scottish independence and May’s Holyrood elections.”

The plan is apparently to launch a new campaign to promote the UK in the spring, ahead of the Scottish elections currently slated for May but which will probably be pushed back into the summer. Officials have reportedly been discussing the four Home Nations ‘jumping together’ to delay the polls. Central to it will be the delayed Dunlop Review, which is looking at how the British Government can maintain and enhance its ‘Union capability‘ in the era of devolution.

As I noted on UnHerd yesterday, such a meeting could also see an important clash between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (‘CDL’, in Whitehall parlance) over the broader direction of the Government’s pro-UK strategy. Johnson’s instincts seem to be much more aggressive than Gove’s, who has some in government worried about an ‘appease the SNP’ mentality on the part of his team.

In other news Michelle Ballantyne, a right-wing MSP who has previously challenged for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives, has defected to become the first representative in the Scottish Parliament of Reform UK, Nigel Farage’s latest vehicle. This will probably be a disappointment to the Alliance for Unity (George Galloway’s outfit), who have been trying to position themselves as the outsiders’ force in Scottish unionism.

Alliance for Unity, the new movement which could give Galloway his next political life

26 Sep

Next year’s Holyrood elections are shaping up to potentially make-or-break clash between unionists and separatists. If the SNP (plus their pro-independence foederati, the Greens) win a majority, the Government will come under increasing pressure to grant a second referendum on Scottish independence.

This fact has produced not one but two new parties, one on each side of the debate, which aim to skew the next Scottish Parliament towards their chosen position.

First out of the traps was the Alliance for Independence. Their plan is quite straightforward: to run candidates only in the regional list constituencies at the election, and encourage as many pro-independence voters as possible to back them after voting SNP at the constituency level. Whilst list SNP votes might get discounted if the Nationalists win a lot of FPTP constituencies, this new party would get the full entitlement and thus maximise the separatist caucus.

There are questions to be asked about this plan. Will the A4I really contribute much that the Scottish Greens (whose MPs are all elected on the lists already) don’t? Is it legitimate to so obviously game what is meant to be a proportional system? Is it all just a front for a controversial far-left politician?

In fact, that last point is one that might also be asked of the pro-UK counter to A4I: the Alliance4Unity, a new non-partisan unionist initiative being headed up by none other than George Galloway.

Galloway has form on this. He represents a quite old-school strain of left-wing unionism which backs Irish republicanism but is sternly opposed to separatism on the British mainland, which was traditionally viewed as antithetical to solidarity or, for the true believers, a distraction from the class struggle. (And after two decades of devocrats hiding behind the flag rather than defend their poor records, maybe they have a point?) During the 2014 referendum, Galloway conducted an independent town-hall speaking tour which offered many people who are usually bitterly opposed to his politics an opportunity to see how electrifying his oratory can be when he’s on your side.

Nonetheless, A4U represents a sharp break in his career. Whilst he has not previously been shy about falling in with the religious right when seeking sectarian votes for Respect, this looks like the first time he has openly collaborated with Tories. Their initial tranche of candidates includes not only Gorgeous George himself but Alan Sked, the founder of UKIP, as well as a GP, an ex-soldier, and a barrister, and the group is calling for a broader pact between the unionist parties.

Whether or not explicitly modelled on A4I, the A4U has adopted a very similar strategy of standing only in the regional lists in an effort to maximise the pro-UK vote. According to their website, any MSPs elected under the Alliance’s banner will sit as Independents and support any anti-independence administration. This will not only make it easier to run an ideologically heterogeneous slate, but may help to remove any barriers to cooperation between them and the mainstream pro-UK parties, who might balk (quite understandably) at collaborating with an organised party commanded by Galloway.

Yet its road to Holyrood won’t be easy. Some of its output on social media has been crank-ish, and there will inevitably be tension between the loose ‘alliance’ model and the professionalism expected of a modern political campaign. It also faces the task of trying to woo list votes from people who have voted for three different parties at the constituency level, a much tougher ask than the A4I’s bid for SNP switches, and it is harder to argue to the most committed unionist voters that a list vote for the Tories is a wasted vote.

For all that it at aspires to breadth and an electoral pact, the A4U’s future in Scottish politics will probably hinge on whether Galloway himself can identify and energise a section of the pro-UK electorate that is left cold by the major parties – perhaps in the left-unionist space vacated by a moribund and swithering Labour Party.

Securing the Majority? 3) A Department for the Union

2 Sep

After the 2019 election, we suggested five ways that Boris Johnson could help to secure the Party’s electoral position as part of our Majority series. This was the third. Eight months on, how are they doing?

– – –

Securing The Majority? 3) A Department for the Union

Boris Johnson did not become Prime Minister to fight for the United Kingdom, any more than did Theresa May to deliver Brexit.

Nonetheless he, like his predecessor, knows that his legacy will be defined by a battle not of his preference.

The precedent set by the Government’s handling of Northern Ireland is not inspiring, with MPs reportedly not realising the real implications of the terms they agreed to escape the impasse over the Backstop. However, the steel ministers are showing over control of post-Brexit economic powers suggests that they are finally getting across the need to defend the structures of the Union.

Officially, the Government insists that it will not grant a second “once-in-a-generation” referendum. It would be quite right to do this, although the arguments for doing so will need fleshing out.

Yet holding that line in the face of a separatist majority at next year’s Holyrood elections may require more nerve than the forces of unionism possess at the minute, and there are signs that preparations are being laid for a future campaign.

As suggested in Paul’s original article, Michael Gove is playing a leading role in the pro-UK operation inside the Government, although much of his time is reportedly consumed with Brexit at present.

He has even been out on manoeuvres with George Galloway, who has returned to Scotland and launched a new political party, the Alliance for Unity, to contest the upcoming Scottish Parliament election.

Whilst there is no sign yet of a full-blown Department of the Union, Johnson has brought in Luke Graham, the former Tory MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, to head up the Downing Street ‘Union Unit’ – although the sacking of the Unit’s adviser in February caused concern amongst Scottish Conservatives.

The Prime Minister has also blocked a proposal from Gove to invite Nicola Sturgeon to sit in Cabinet (which seems fair, as she would not be bound by collective responsibility and has no mandate on reserved matters) and ordered that projects funded by the Government in Scotland should bear the imprint of the Union.

Outwith the Government, meanwhile, work is underway to rebuild the pro-UK campaigning machine. Whether or not this network can work harmoniously with the Number Ten operation remains to be seen.

Henry Hill: If Gove and Johnson want to save Britain, they’re going to have to use the word ‘Britain’

30 Jul

Gove digs out Better Together’s greatest hits as Davidson heads to the Lords

Michael Gove has been in Scotland this week, fronting a new push by the Cabinet to raise the Government’s profile north of the border ahead of next year’s Holyrood vote – with a particular focus on the under-35s.

Following polls which suggest that independence is not a priority for the Scottish electorate, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that he will not be ‘distracted’ by those showing majority support for breaking up Britain.

He has also adopted an identifiable style – perhaps informed by Downing Street polling – which appears to be setting the tone for the pro-UK effort. It includes repeatedly stressing that devolution is not only ‘working’ but, in a phrase dredged up from 2014, offers “the best of both worlds”.

As I wrote for the Daily Telegraph this week, this is a tactical position with huge strategic dangers. The insistence that ‘devolution is working‘ makes it difficult to attack the SNP’s many failures, or to answer the separatists when they pose the simple question of why, if Holyrood is using all these powers so well, should it not have even more?

Worse still, Gove’s article for the Times makes repeated references to the “four nations” and “different nations” of the UK, but doesn’t mention ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ once. It bodes ill for any effort to build an ’emotional case’ for the Union if Cabinet ministers dare not speak the nation’s name.

Ruth Davidson, however, has struck a different note to this softly-softly approach, suggesting that Unionists should have been more combative and “put the boot in” to the SNP in the aftermath of the 2014 vote. This comes as the Press & Journal reports SNP fears that she is being elevated to the Lords to launch high-profile attacks on them (surely a reasonable assumption).

With the Government preparing to face down the Scottish Government over control of the British internal market, and another row brewing over the proposed ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, the best that can be hoped is that Gove is speaking softly so as not to draw attention to a big, big stick. Or boot.

New parties shaking up the unionist and separatist camps in Scotland

With the possibility of a second independence referendum possibly riding on the results of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections (although it shouldn’t), the stakes are extremely high – and have tempted new entrants into the ring.

In the nationalist corner is the new Alliance for Independence. This has been set up with the express intention of gaming Holyrood’s electoral system by contesting only the list vote, attracting vast numbers of SNP second preferences, and delivering a separatist supermajority next year.

However it has already become a locus for deeper tensions within the independence movement, with Nationalist figures dissatisfied with Nicola Sturgeon’s safety-first strategy rallying to its defence. There are also concerns that it could become a vehicle for Alex Salmond to stage his next comeback.

(On a related note, the Daily Record reports that the Scottish Government is set to miss an important deadline for turning over documents to the inquiry into the debacle with the former First Minister.)

On the pro-UK side, meanwhile, is George Galloway’s Alliance 4 Unity. This is an explicitly ecumenical effort, distinct from his Workers Party GB: he has openly stated that he will work with Tories in the name of defeating the SNP, and attracted candidates from a range of backgrounds to stand under the A4U banner.

Despite that, Galloway’s big opening might be on the left, exploiting the gap in the market created by the moribund Scottish Labour Party (more below) and wooing Lab-Nat switchers tempted by the radical promises of independence supporters.

Crack in DUP unity as Foster spurs rebellion over Stormont changes

A major crack in the discipline of the Democratic Unionist Party appeared this week, when Arlene Foster found herself facing the largest Stormont rebellion in the Party’s history.

The revolt was staged over a controversial bill intended to give increased powers to individual ministers in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, the News Letter reports. The move has been pushed through by the DUP and Sinn Fein, whilst being opposed by the Ulster Unionists.

Senior DUP figures have accused the First Minister of trading away important safeguards secured for Unionism at previous negotiations. Outside observers have also suggested that it will increase the exposure of Executive decisions to legal challenge.

If this comes to pass, it will join the St Andrews Agreement in the line of Stormont fouling itself up with self-directed reform.

BBC urged to drop Sturgeon’s ‘political broadcasts’

The BBC has been urged to stop broadcasting Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus press briefings on the basis that she is using them for party political purposes.

According to the HeraldScottish Labour have demanded a meeting with the head of BBC Scotland and claim that the broadcasts are “in breach of the Charter of the BBC”. The Tories have made the same claim – in their case slightly awkwardly, as the Prime Minister is in the process of trying to set up a similar press briefing at Westminster.

Sturgeon has been accused of misrepresenting Scotland’s Covid-19 statistics, and downplaying the scandal in Scottish care homes revealed by the BBC.

Labour veteran calls on Leonard to step down ‘for the Party’

Lord Foulkes has called on Richard Leonard, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to step aside ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliament electons, the Daily Record reports.

The peer, a former MP and MSP, suggests that Jackie Baillie, the punchy and relatively right-wing deputy leader, could take over on an interim basis for the 2021 campaign.

Leonard is a left-winger who was a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. His leadership has seen a fresh waning in the Party’s fortunes, losing all but one of its MPs (again) at the 2019 election and fifth place at the final European elections. Labour are currently bumping along at 15 per cent in the Holyrood polls.

Henry Hill: If Gove and Johnson want to save Britain, they’re going to have to use the word ‘Britain’

30 Jul

Gove digs out Better Together’s greatest hits as Davidson heads to the Lords

Michael Gove has been in Scotland this week, fronting a new push by the Cabinet to raise the Government’s profile north of the border ahead of next year’s Holyrood vote – with a particular focus on the under-35s.

Following polls which suggest that independence is not a priority for the Scottish electorate, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that he will not be ‘distracted’ by those showing majority support for breaking up Britain.

He has also adopted an identifiable style – perhaps informed by Downing Street polling – which appears to be setting the tone for the pro-UK effort. It includes repeatedly stressing that devolution is not only ‘working’ but, in a phrase dredged up from 2014, offers “the best of both worlds”.

As I wrote for the Daily Telegraph this week, this is a tactical position with huge strategic dangers. The insistence that ‘devolution is working‘ makes it difficult to attack the SNP’s many failures, or to answer the separatists when they pose the simple question of why, if Holyrood is using all these powers so well, should it not have even more?

Worse still, Gove’s article for the Times makes repeated references to the “four nations” and “different nations” of the UK, but doesn’t mention ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ once. It bodes ill for any effort to build an ’emotional case’ for the Union if Cabinet ministers dare not speak the nation’s name.

Ruth Davidson, however, has struck a different note to this softly-softly approach, suggesting that Unionists should have been more combative and “put the boot in” to the SNP in the aftermath of the 2014 vote. This comes as the Press & Journal reports SNP fears that she is being elevated to the Lords to launch high-profile attacks on them (surely a reasonable assumption).

With the Government preparing to face down the Scottish Government over control of the British internal market, and another row brewing over the proposed ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, the best that can be hoped is that Gove is speaking softly so as not to draw attention to a big, big stick. Or boot.

New parties shaking up the unionist and separatist camps in Scotland

With the possibility of a second independence referendum possibly riding on the results of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections (although it shouldn’t), the stakes are extremely high – and have tempted new entrants into the ring.

In the nationalist corner is the new Alliance for Independence. This has been set up with the express intention of gaming Holyrood’s electoral system by contesting only the list vote, attracting vast numbers of SNP second preferences, and delivering a separatist supermajority next year.

However it has already become a locus for deeper tensions within the independence movement, with Nationalist figures dissatisfied with Nicola Sturgeon’s safety-first strategy rallying to its defence. There are also concerns that it could become a vehicle for Alex Salmond to stage his next comeback.

(On a related note, the Daily Record reports that the Scottish Government is set to miss an important deadline for turning over documents to the inquiry into the debacle with the former First Minister.)

On the pro-UK side, meanwhile, is George Galloway’s Alliance 4 Unity. This is an explicitly ecumenical effort, distinct from his Workers Party GB: he has openly stated that he will work with Tories in the name of defeating the SNP, and attracted candidates from a range of backgrounds to stand under the A4U banner.

Despite that, Galloway’s big opening might be on the left, exploiting the gap in the market created by the moribund Scottish Labour Party (more below) and wooing Lab-Nat switchers tempted by the radical promises of independence supporters.

Crack in DUP unity as Foster spurs rebellion over Stormont changes

A major crack in the discipline of the Democratic Unionist Party appeared this week, when Arlene Foster found herself facing the largest Stormont rebellion in the Party’s history.

The revolt was staged over a controversial bill intended to give increased powers to individual ministers in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, the News Letter reports. The move has been pushed through by the DUP and Sinn Fein, whilst being opposed by the Ulster Unionists.

Senior DUP figures have accused the First Minister of trading away important safeguards secured for Unionism at previous negotiations. Outside observers have also suggested that it will increase the exposure of Executive decisions to legal challenge.

If this comes to pass, it will join the St Andrews Agreement in the line of Stormont fouling itself up with self-directed reform.

BBC urged to drop Sturgeon’s ‘political broadcasts’

The BBC has been urged to stop broadcasting Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus press briefings on the basis that she is using them for party political purposes.

According to the HeraldScottish Labour have demanded a meeting with the head of BBC Scotland and claim that the broadcasts are “in breach of the Charter of the BBC”. The Tories have made the same claim – in their case slightly awkwardly, as the Prime Minister is in the process of trying to set up a similar press briefing at Westminster.

Sturgeon has been accused of misrepresenting Scotland’s Covid-19 statistics, and downplaying the scandal in Scottish care homes revealed by the BBC.

Labour veteran calls on Leonard to step down ‘for the Party’

Lord Foulkes has called on Richard Leonard, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to step aside ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliament electons, the Daily Record reports.

The peer, a former MP and MSP, suggests that Jackie Baillie, the punchy and relatively right-wing deputy leader, could take over on an interim basis for the 2021 campaign.

Leonard is a left-winger who was a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. His leadership has seen a fresh waning in the Party’s fortunes, losing all but one of its MPs (again) at the 2019 election and fifth place at the final European elections. Labour are currently bumping along at 15 per cent in the Holyrood polls.