#Marr: Do you accept that there is a border in the Irish Sea?
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) January 3, 2021
The Editor of this site will today chair a joint Policy Exchange/ConservativeHome event on: One Nation conservatism: what does it look like after Covid-19? The five panellists are:
- Isaac Levido: 2019 General Election Conservative Campaign Director.
- Arlene Foster: First Minister of Northern Ireland and Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.
- Kirstene Hair: Senior Adviser to Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and former MP for Angus
- Danny Kruger: former Political Secretary to the Prime Minister and MP for Devizes.
- Jane Stevenson: MP for Wolverhampton North East.
The event will take place via Zoom at noon today, Monday November 16. You are welcome to register for it via this link here.
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 Herald, Scottish 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.
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.
Davies says Wales needs a ‘devolution revolution’
The leader of the Welsh Conservatives has pledged a ‘devolution revolution’ and to give Cardiff Bay a ‘dose of Dom’ in his latest bid to avoid being outflanked by organised devoscepticism.
Other sources report that the Welsh Tories’ new election strategy aims at tackling the long-standing problem this column has covered previously: mobilising Conservative voters who only vote at Westminster and in local elections to turn out for the Senedd. As I wrote two years ago:
“Secondly, both candidates would do well to address the severe disadvantage their Party suffers because hundreds of thousands of its voters do not vote in devolved elections. In 2016 the Tories polled just 215,000 votes, compared to over 400,000 in 2015 and almost 530,000 in 2017.”
Tory strategists have now set themselves the target of mobilising 75 per cent of their general election vote (557,234 in 2019) for the devolved contest, which if successful would almost double their 2016 vote to just under 418,000. For comparison, Labour’s majority-winning Senedd vote in 2016 was just under 354,000.
All this is the latest evidence that the advent of organised opposition to the Welsh Parliament is already shifting the balance of power inside the Conservative Party. The leadership remains firmly in the hands of the ‘devophiles’, but their new slogan – ‘Abolish Labour, not devolution’ – suggests they fear they’re on borrowed time.
Johnson funds research for the ‘Boris Bridge’ as he steps up campaigning in Scotland
News that the Prime Minister intends to embark on a tour of Scotland has probably not brought unconfined joy to unionists north of the border, but it remains infinitely preferable that he fights the good fight than not.
Following a week in which the Government squared up to the devolved administrations over the future of post-Brexit market regulations (with very good reason, and as we covered last week), this morning’s papers carry several stories on Boris Johnson’s pro-UK fightback, with the role of the Treasury in supporting the Scottish economy through the pandemic front and centre.
He has also apparently approved funds for a feasibility study into his proposal for the ‘Boris Bridge’ between Scotland and Northern Ireland. It still seems extremely unlikely it will be built, however, especially once the Government has to start making cuts to pay for all the Covid-19 spending.
MPs set up new ‘Union Research Group’
More evidence that the Tories are marshalling their forces in the Times this week, which covered the emergence of the new Conservative Union Research Group.
This new body is chaired by Robin Millar, the MP for Aberconwy, and aims to bring together backbench MPs to help support the Government as it prepares to take on Nicola Sturgeon and the devocrats. It reportedly already has the backing of around 40 backbenchers.
Although modelled on the European Research Group’s template, which has the virtue of being approved by IPSA, CURG sources emphasise that it is not intended to be a ‘party within a party’ or agitate against the Government. Defending the Union was in the Conservative manifesto in 2019, so it expects to be working with the grain of the leadership.
It isn’t yet clear whether or not the group will have any relationships with other parties – ERG membership is open to the Democratic Unionists – or how precisely it will operate. Watch this space.
Trouble at Stormont as ruling parties try to push through changes
There has been a new fight in Northern Ireland over proposed changes to the Assembly being pushed by Sinn Fein and the DUP, according to the News Letter.
On Tuesday the Assembly took just ten minutes to vote through the crucial stage of legislation which will increase the powers of ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. Arlene Foster, the First Minister and DUP leader, has been accused of making a “massive error” based on a mistaken understanding of the law in question by a senior adviser who has now left the party.
Experts also warn that the changes are likely to lead to more legal challenges against Stormont decisions, contrary to the assertions of both Foster and Michelle O’Neill, her Sinn Fein counterpart.
Meanwhile, Ulster and the Republic have also revived joint ministerial talks, the FT reports, as the new Taoiseach tries to build bridges following the departure of Leo Varadkar.
Fight for the Union: Government mulls ‘devolution revolution’… but tries to muzzle Tory critics
Earlier this week, the Times reported that ministers are considering setting up new, UK-wide economic and security bodies as part of a bid to enhance the standing of the British Government in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
This move could finally mark an end to the previous practice of feebly handing over reserved powers to the devolved institutions, even when this risked great damage to the Union, in the name of the “spirit of devolution”.
Apparently, “Tory ministers are preparing to be more “robust” with their SNP counterparts in taking responsibility for macroeconomic and security issues”, and ideas will be brought forward by a new Union Policy Implementation Committee, supported by a Downing Street-based ‘Union Unit’.
This may be some comfort to the Scottish Conservatives, many of whom are deeply concerned that the Prime Minister doesn’t grasp the scale of the danger posed to the Union by the next Holyrood elections. (Of course, holding a referendum is one thing ministers could be ‘more robust’ about.)
It also comes in the same week as Boris Johnson’s high-profile clash with Nicola Sturgeon over the latter’s threat to start quarantining visitors from England. Following the ugly politics we have already seen from the Welsh Government, this highlights once again the real damage the ‘Four Nations’ approach to the Union, so thoughtlessly endorsed by minister after minister, is doing to the integrity of our country.
But there are apparently limits to the boldness of this approach. This week Guido Fawkes reported that the whips have been cracking down on Conservative MPs who want to break ranks and criticise devolution. This is further proof that the divisions we revealed in May are not going away, and will continue to exacerbate the coalition-building dilemma faced by the Welsh Tories.
For their part, the ruling devophiles amongst the Cardiff Bay leadership are reportedly doubling-down on their efforts to excise wrongthink on this question: apparently expressing devosceptic views is enough to get even already approved candidates summoned back for re-assessment.
But silencing such critics will only slow (even further) the Government’s painfully slow awakening to the dangers of the current constitutional situation. We must hope that, like the Eurosceptics before them, it will not be long until some true believers slough off the whip on this particular question.
Elsewhere this week Joanna Cherry MP, an ally of Alex Salmond and prominent figure on the SNP’s ‘fundamentalist’ wing, called on the Nationalists to be prepared to make a bid for independence without a referendum.
Plaid Cymru launches investigation after Senedd candidate accused of antisemitism
The Welsh Nationalists have launched an investigation after a prominent Jewish organisation called for one of their candidates to be permanently barred from the Party over an antisemitic tweet.
According to Wales Online, high-profile Plaid activist Sahar Al-Faifi tweeted the same claim about Israel training US police officers which ended up seeing Rebecca Long-Bailey sacked from the Labour front bench.
This is not the first time this has happened: Al-Faifi was previously suspended from Plaid over a series of antisemitic social media posts published in 2014, but was since reinstated. Apparently the Nationalists would not confirm whether or not she remains a candidate.
DUP call for O’Neill to ‘step aside’ over funeral attendance
The Democratic Unionist Party are calling on Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and Deputy First Minister, to step aside to allow a police investigation into a republican funeral held earlier this week.
O’Neill, who has repeatedly urged the public to maintain social distancing and obey other public health guidelines, flagrantly breached them at the funeral of Bobby Storey, an IRA terrorist and senior Sinn Fein official.
Now the DUP are saying that it will be difficult for Arlene Foster, the First Minister, to appear alongside O’Neill at the Executive’s coronavirus press conferences. For her part, the Sinn Fein leader says that she is “satisfied” that her actions were within public health advice.
Anglesey constituency protected from ‘radical’ boundary shake-up
ITV reports that the Government has committed to protecting the boundaries of Ynys Môn, the parliamentary constituency which corresponds to the Isle of Anglesey, ahead of “the most radical shake-up of Welsh parliamentary seats in more than a century”.
Under the proposals, Wales’ seats will be brought into line with England’s in terms of size. As a result, the Principality’s representation in the House of Commons will be cut by almost a quarter, from 40 to about 32. This is part of a broader push to equalise constituencies across the UK.
Anglesey will now join four other island-based exceptions to the new rule: Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Western Isles) in Scotland, and two seats on the Isle of Wight. The move may help the Conservatives, who won the seat at the last election, as the adjoining area of mainland Wales is slim pickings for the party.