When it comes to the Northern Irish Protocol, ‘honour what you signed’ cuts both ways

6 Sep

After a summer break, Northern Ireland is back in the news again as the United Kingdom and European Union prepare once again to square off over the future of the Protocol.

At this point, it looks as if everyone expects another extension of the ‘grace periods’ which allow British produce to freely enter the Province, for the two sides seem no nearer a resolution than before.

One might expect, after having these special arrangements in place for almost a year, that Brussels would by now have clear evidence of the market distortions created by the unrestricted flow of British exports across its ‘external frontier’. There’s no sign of it, though – not that this has in any way softened the EU’s position.

In a recent speech to the British-Irish Association, David Frost set out the Government’s view of what the Protocol is for:

“Written clearly into the Protocol are a number of different principles: protecting all dimensions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement – the Protocol’s key purpose and raison d’être in the first place; ensuring North/South cooperation and avoiding a hard border; respecting the essential state functions and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom; protecting Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK internal market; and protecting the single market.”

The problem, he argues, is that too many seem to view it exclusively through the lens of protecting the EU single market or honouring the May Government’s (absurd – it is not a Belfast Agreement requirement) pledge to maintain an absolutely invisible border with the Republic. This, according to Frost, ‘unbalances’ the Protocol and renders it unworkable.

When it comes to remedies, he points out that the grounds for the UK triggering Article 16 have already been triggered – “That is simply a statement of fact” – but the Government would prefer to negotiate substantial changes to make the Protocol workable. Whether or not Brussels is remotely open to that is another matter.

The point about Article 16 is important, however, because it gives important context to the Government’s insistence that it isn’t going to simply ‘tear up’ the Protocol. The fact is, it doesn’t need to. The Protocol already contains the tools it might require. Here is the actual text of the first section of Article 16:

“If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures. Such safeguard measures shall be restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation. Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this Protocol.”

Whilst the language about “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist” is vague, that about “diversion of trade” is not. And Ulster supermarkets being forced to set up new south-facing supply chains because they can’t import products from the mainland is diversion of trade.

Unsurprisingly, this point usually goes unacknowledged by those who keep demanding that the UK honour the agreement it signed, and pretend that activating a safeguarding clause negotiated into the Protocol would somehow breach the Protocol.

But it seems clear that the Government’s refusal to allow east-west supply chains to be severed is entirely in keeping with its legal commitments – even if some Irish and European commentators can’t fathom that a legal text might occasionally operate against their interests.

Our Cabinet League Table. Raab plummets from third from top in July to fourth from bottom last month.

5 Sep
  • 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.

Should the Prime Minister put his COP26 spokesperson in the House of Lords?

3 Aug

Last month, the Commission for Smart Government attracted controversy when it proposed that the Prime Minister ought to be able to appoint ministers from outside Parliament. The Independent reported it thus:

“Describing its reforms as “radical”, the commission suggests giving prime ministers the ability to appoint ministers who are not parliamentarians, “to allow additional talent to be brought in from outside government”. Attempting to tackle inevitable questions of accountability to parliament, the report suggests the creation of oral committees that can summon the ministers who are not MPs or peers to appear.”

Might Boris Johnson have some sympathy with this proposal? He does seem to be developing a habit of giving wide-ranging political briefs to people who are not ministers.

Lord Frost may have been elevated before he was put in control of salvaging the Government’s position in Northern Ireland, but it was as David Frost that he delivered his speech, ‘Reflections on the revolutions in Europe‘, making a wide-ranging and political case for what Brexit meant.

Now we have Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson for COP26, attracting controversy with advice on rinsing dishes, criticising the official Net Zero target, and her preference for diesel cars over electric.

These are not unreasonable positions. But it nonetheless seems strange that a mere spokesperson is publishing articles urging voters to go ‘one step greener’ under her own name, rather than the Prime Minister’s. Indeed, it very much reads in the tone of a ministerial piece.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the role is an ill-defined one. After all, it was only conjured to find a position for Stratton after Boris Johnson rightly abandoned plans to introduce US-style televised press briefings.

But if the Prime Minister wishes Stratton to have a proper political role, then he should elevate her to the peerage as he did Frost. Contra the Commission for Smart Government, it is precisely one of the roles of the House of Lords to “allow additional talent to be brought in from outside government” – whilst remaining properly accountable to the legislature.

Two by-elections and one Health Secretary – losses see Johnson fall by 16 points in our Cabinet League Table

3 Jul

It’s been a month in which the Prime Minister lost two by-elections and his Health Secretary. We are also now past the point at which England was supposed to unlock, which is testing the patience of the grassroots. What impact has this had on our league table?

  • Boris Johnson’s score falls from 55 to 39, putting him back in the lower half of the table. Has the shine come off, or will a successful unlocking on July 19 put him back in our panel’s good books?
  • There’s little change at the top, with Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak, and Dominic Raab holding on to their podium spots, albeit with the latter’s scores falling back a little. Lord Frost likewise holds on to fourth place as he continues to square off with the EU over the Northern Irish Protocol, although for some reason none of the glory seems to have reflected on Brandon Lewis.
  • Sajid Javid is straight in at fifth place. Is this because members expect great things from him on thorny issues such as social care reform – or simply due to his public commitment to ending lockdown?
  • Our anti-podium is also stable, albeit still sinking. Robert Jenrick and Amanda Milling both slip into negative territory, which is perhaps not surprising after two by-election defeats one of which is being pinned on opposition to (urgent and necessary!) planning reform.
  • Gavin Williamson’s tanking score perhaps reflects anger at the Government’s refusal to end the self-isolation regime causing huge disruption in schools – but Javid’s one-for-one appointment means the reshuffle to replace him has likely been delayed again.

Lord Frost’s opening speech to Königswinter Conference, June 17

18 Jun

As delivered, 1330h

It’s conventional at this point at events like these to reflect on the strength of our bilateral relationship.

But I hope that for the UK and Germany that hardly needs doing. The events, the connections, the reality all speak for themselves.

Let me give a few examples.

Germany, which we described as our “essential ally” in the IR, was the only country in the world in 2020 to receive visits from the Prince of Wales, the PM, the Foreign Secretary, and the Chancellor. And we were delighted to have Chancellor Merkel here for the G7 in Cornwall last week, with a very warm and friendly bilateral meeting with our Prime Minister too.

We will have soon a Joint Declaration on Foreign and Security Policy, to complement the existing Joint Defence Vision – and, I hope, with more to follow soon. I agree with Ambassador Michaelis that there is room to make the governmental relationship a bit more structured and we should work on that in the months to come.

There are 1800 cooperation projects between our universities.

We have huge investment in each other’s countries – 1400 British companies in Germany, 2500 German companies in the UK.

And cultural exchanges are equally rich. Neil MacGregor’s role at the Humboldt Forum is well known, as is Hartwig Fischer’s at the British Museum – but there is much more.

I could go on. But there is no need to. The short version is that this is what you would expect between two great European countries. There’s a rich set of contacts at all levels – government, business, broader civil society, and beyond.

And of course KW itself is part of that and has been since the beginning. And let me put in a plug here for not just the main event but for YKW. My own engagement in KW is actually framed, until today, by 2 YKW events – my first involvement, in 1995, in Berlin, and my last, as a speaker at YKW in Frankfurt in 2018, where HansHenning was present, where I fear I shocked some of our German friends, and quite a few Brits too, with my views on Brexit. So I’d like to say thank you and well done Annika Muller De Vries and everyone else who has kept YKW going and to underline my hope that we can keep and intensify the pipeline of people from YKW to KW proper. It’s crucial that KW makes an effort to be representative of all parts of our societies – by generation, by profession, by political views.

I want to say a little more on that last point. This is a UK-Germany event, not an EU one. All the same obviously Brexit has been a matter of huge controversy at KW over the years, even if the 52/48 split in British opinion hasn’t generally been reflected in the perspectives of the British guests!

This isn’t the moment to go over the arguments – they are done. It’s time to look forward and I want to set out how politics now feels here, and why, to help frame our discussions in the next 24 hours.

First, a reflection on the current situation. Our relations with Germany are, I think, good. Our relations with the EU collectively and with the institutions are a bit more bumpy. Obviously no one is happy with that situation.

Indeed I would go further. I think those who campaigned for Brexit wanted and expected genuinely friendly and free-trading relations between the UK and the European Union – and still do. Nothing was further from our thoughts than the current fractious and friction-filled relationship that we seem to have now.

Why is that?

  • Some of the current difficulties are teething troubles.
  • Some of it might relate to what happens when people can’t travel, can’t meet,
    have no real means to discuss things informally or to defuse arguments.

But I fear some of it goes deeper.

  • Some of it stems from lack of trust, for our part from the legacy of what seemed to be attempts to frustrate our referendum result during what seems to us to have been a period of British intellectual and negotiating weakness in 2018 and early 2019, which this government has had to spend a lot of time trying to correct.
  • And finally some also stems from what we see now. We have been surprised by the EU’s willingness to resort quite quickly to threats when problems arise – over vaccines, over fish, over financial services, and indeed over Northern Ireland.
  • I didn’t want to speak about Northern Ireland in any depth, but I do need to respond to Ambassador Michaelis’s comments. We are spending hundreds of millions on operating the Protocol, and that is the source of the problems, so we take no lectures on this. I am afraid the idea that we could take the politics out of Northern Ireland and the Protocol is not exactly realistic. We agreed the Protocol to deal with a very particular and delicate situation, and the best thing our European friends can do is to respect this delicacy and to work with us to find a pragmatic and negotiated solution.

So I want to be clear – we don’t wish for difficult relations, we look for this time to
pass, we will work to make it better – but it takes two.

Second, a reflection on why Brexit matters so much to us. It’s worth saying perhaps to our German friends that there is no longer any serious debate on the subject in Britain. No major political party advocates EU membership, and, while a proportion of the public may still regret Brexit, there is no energy behind a rejoin movement. Overwhelmingly we are now looking forward.

That matters. Those of us who became convinced, publicly or privately, in the years after 2010 of the need to leave the EU did so not because of some obsessional attraction to sovereignty. We did so because we believed EU membership had been detrimental to the UK, had sapped our energy and ability to solve problems for ourselves, and had stopped us making hard choices and clear decisions about how we wanted to run our country.

I think it’s worth making clear that this is not just a Brexit of the right. We’ve seen perhaps the most significant change in British politics for a generation – a profound shift towards Brexit, and the Conservative Party, from parts of the country which have traditionally leaned left.

Some are inclined, even now, to dismiss this as a cry of anger against “being left behind”. That is far too dismissive. What we have seen is a call for the country to be run in a different way, injecting new ideas into the political class, creating alternative possibilities, and crucially, holding politicians to account for different things, against different standards.

The point I want to make is that leaving the EU wasn’t the final goal – it was a doorway, a portal through which we had to pass, the beginning of a journey to national renewal and a repositioning of Britain on the world stage. I think it’s because people sense those possibilities that the mood in Britain is better than many thought it would be.

We think we have made a fairly good start to that renewal process, with a world class vaccination programme and indeed vaccine – as indeed does Germany. The predicted collapse in trade has not happened. We are putting in place a programme of reforms – to subsidy policy, to procurement rules, to agricultural support programmes. We are establishing genuine freeports to encourage investment and rebalancing around the country. We are setting up our own pure scientific research agency, ARIA. On the global stage, we are putting our money where our mouth is on defence, with spending going up to 2.3% of GDP, well above the NATO target. And just this week we agreed our first FTA, with Australia, showing as we always predicted that the ability to tailor agreements to our own needs would mean we could agree them more quickly.

All this is why, for those sitting in our government, it is hard to feel anything other than a profound sense of responsibility to deliver upon the trust bestowed upon us. And if you will forgive me a few personal remarks at this point – it is also why we must be vigilant. We do have a challenge as we take our programme forward as a Conservative Government. It is to respond to the new political configuration here without falling into the trap of statism or the intellectual fallacy that a big state, high levels of public spending, more regulation, and government-determined goals and investment plans can build sustainable economic growth over time. Germany demonstrated this was a false path in the Wirtschaftswunder and I think we could do worse than refresh our knowledge of the Ordoliberal tradition, weakened though it may be in the context of broader European policy-making, as we make our plans.

We must also avoid being too influenced by the current pandemic situation, that Ambassador Michaelis referred to. . The pandemic has ushered in a range of measures literally unprecedented in a free society – indeed for the last year or so we have not really lived in a free society. We now know governments can act decisively when there is a genuine crisis – but we always knew that. I personally don’t want to accept that the levels of state involvement in our lives and in the economy we have seen in the last year are in any way normal. I want to get back to the old normal as soon as we can. To me and to many Brits it is striking that it was in Germany, that has learned to be vigilant about these things, that we saw the first, and still in many ways the strongest, protests against lockdowns. As we emerge from the pandemic, we must not lose our conviction that individual not collective rights are paramount, that living with risk is inevitable, or our belief that free debate and free expression of opinion is the right way forward for a free society.

Of course we 100% do not have all the answers. As I hope I’ve made clear, I personally think we have a lot to learn from Germany. What we do have is the ability to make our own decisions, and yes our own mistakes, but also to correct errors and make changes. That is a crucial advantage in developing good public policy.

So, although we are rebuilding our relationships beyond Europe – and as the Integrated Review showed we are going to be putting lots of effort into that – relationships with Germany, and our other great European friends, remain crucial to us. We recognise we have to manage them not just bilaterally but through the EU institutions – but events like today show that the bilateral remains crucially important.

To conclude – as you may be able to tell I am profoundly optimistic about this country and our future. This is an optimistic government and we believe in the ability of the British people to recover from the setbacks we’ve all faced over the last year and to turn our country into something special. In doing so, we look for friendly collaboration wherever that is possible; with Germany I am confident it is possible; and KW has a huge role in keeping it possible. Thank you.

Yes, the row over the Protocol really is about the British sausage

11 Jun

So the row over the Irish Protocol is now the ‘sausage wars’. Whilst the trade barriers the EU seeks to erect inside the United Kingdom impact a broad range of products, including medicines, it is the humble sausage which has come to be emblematic of the issue. Jim Hacker remains one of our most consequential Prime Ministers.

Defenders of the European position say this is unfair, yet another misrepresentation by the Brexiteer press. Tony Connelly, of the Irish broadcaster RTÉ, has set out the counter-case in a Twitter thread which opens by asserting that “this is not about the EU and UK banning each other’s sausages, never mind a “sausage war””.

(This helps skate over the awkward question of what purpose the controls are actually serving. One analyst pointed out to me that illegal sausages have been flowing into Northern Ireland for six months – “at what point do the market distortions turn up?”)

He then sets out the EU’s perspective on the case: that the United Kingdom had pledged to halt the movement of chilled meat products from the mainland to Northern Ireland after July 1. He also states the following:

This is a telling claim. When Michael Gove presented his negotiated settlement on the Protocol to Parliament in December, we reported that Democratic Unionist MPs pressed him on precisely this question. They cited Irish claims that the grace periods were to led Ulster businesses find new, south-facing supply lines, rather than buy time to secure a feature for existing east-west chains.

Gove had no answer for them, and if Connolly is correct it seems the Government may have actually conceded that principle, even if it wouldn’t admit it in the House of Commons.

But of course, the UK’s approach to the Protocol is under new management. Both David Frost and Brandon Lewis, the Northern Irish Secretary, have been robust about London’s determination to keep the Province open to British foodstuffs. They seem, for now, to enjoy the support of Number Ten.

Some Irish commentators have made much of Frost’s refusal to invoke Article 16 or declare the Government’s intention to simply resile from the Protocol. But that misunderstands the strategy, grasped by cannier EU observers, which is to keep making targeted, more defensible moves on grace periods. If the EU’s retaliation is too heavy-handed – and there are press reports of a ‘trade war’ or, no kidding, a sea border with Ireland – it risks looking like the bad guy.

Which brings us back to Connolly’s claim. Is the row over the Protocol about high legal principle, or sausages? The truth is that it is very obviously about both. Yes, the UK is resisting implementation of the existing deal with the EU. But enforcement of that deal would mean barring (chilled) British sausages from Northern Ireland. If Brussels would defend the principle, it cannot disown the consequences.

Hancock’s score falls by over 20 points in our latest Cabinet League Table

5 Jun

Whether or not the nation unlocks on June 21 hangs in the balance. The Cabinet is divided over whether or not to impose ‘environmental’ tariffs on Australian meat. The Prime Minister’s education tsar just resigned. So how’s the Cabinet League Table looking?

  • Matt Hancock’s score falls by 23 points in a single month, although he just about manages to avoid disturbing the three regular low-rankging faces on the table’s inverse podium. Dominic Cummings’ head-on attack on the Health Secretary has clearly had an effect.
  • The Prime Minister’s score has recovered a bit, rising from 19th to 11th place and putting on more than 20 points. It isn’t difficult to imagine it climbing further or falling hard again next month, depending on whether unlocking goes ahead or we see a new surge in cases. Volatility remains one of the salient features of Boris Johnson’s score.
  • Liz Truss has now topped the table six months running, and her rating is almost unchanged from last month. It looks as if securing new trade deals and taking fire at the woke agenda is a winning combination with the grassroots.
  • Robert Jenrick languishes near the bottom of the table, as he has for months, underpolled only by Amanda Milling and Gavin Williamson. The price one pays for taking housebuilding seriously?
  • Lord Frost holds on to fourth place and sees his score climb into the 70s – perhaps reflecting support from our panellists for his determined efforts to secure changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Henry Hill: Johnson must give Frost and Lewis his full support over the Northern Ireland Protocol

3 Jun

The Union is one of, if not the, most important policy challenges facing the Government. If Boris Johnson gets it wrong, he will go down in history as a byword for the disintegration of the United Kingdom.

A man as historically-aware as the Prime Minister must be acutely aware of this. But it hasn’t spurred him to take the sort of grip on the subject that one might expect.

In particular, there seems to be a gap opening up between the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland, which is still under the control of the Vote Leave tendency in the form of Lord Frost, and the mainland, following the departure of Oliver Lewis and the dissolution of the Union Unit.

Frost, as I noted back in March, has been installed with clear orders to deliver meaningful change to the Northern Ireland Protocol. He has an ally in Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State, who has robustly defended the Government’s decision to unilaterally extend grace periods to east-to-west protect food supply lines. This morning, both men penned an article for the Belfast Telegraph reiterating the mission:

“In contrast, at Larne, every supermarket lorry from Great Britain carries up to hundreds of different product lines, each with their own documents, which the EU would want to see subject to checks, even when all the products are clearly destined for consumers in Northern Ireland. We have both heard about the delays and complexity this introduces, and the concerns that issues such as this have produced for unionism more broadly.”

They then point out that if a solution isn’t found, broader unionist and loyalist support for the current settlement could be undermined. The failure of Theresa May and her ministers to prevent the Belfast Agreement being used to merely sacralise Dublin’s demands – a truly abject episode of British diplomacy – could have dire consequences.

But the question is whether or not Lewis and Frost will have the necessary support from the centre to see the current strategy through. There is now nobody directing the Government’s strategy on the Union full-time, and the architects of the muscular ‘Ukima Unionism’ approach – named for the UK Internal Market Act – are increasingly sidelined or departed. Some are concerned that in the event of a showdown with the EU, Downing St will balk and Frost may get thrown under the bus.

That may explain why he has adopted such a conspicuously reasonable approach, eschewing the nuclear option of Article 16 whilst covering tough moves on grace periods – “action to avoid immediate disruption to lives and livelihoods” – in the language of finding “long-term solutions”.

(Amusingly, some Idefenders of the Protocol have developed the habit of simultaneously decrying London’s ‘bad faith’ failure to enforce the Protocol whilst citing the relative lack of disruption secured by extending grace periods as evidence that the Sea Border works!)

Delivering change now, before the Protocol has been bedded in and normalised, is the best chance by far to avoid the long-tern economic and regulatory de-alignment of the Province from the mainland. The Prime Minister owes those tasked with this mission his full support.

Northern Ireland’s place in the UK must be affirmed by deed, as well as by word

2 Jun

Over the past few years, one of the biggest complaints that Northern Irish unionists have had about the British Government is the sense that the Northern Ireland Office is not on their side. They contrast the NIO’s painstaking neutralism with Dublin’s energetic championing if the nationalist interest in the Province.

This has become an especially sore point in the aftermath of the EU referendum, as London ended up getting comprehensively outmanoeuvred over Ulster. Theresa May ended up accepting the need for a ‘backstop’ or Protocol after basically getting memed into an absurdly maximalist interpretation of “our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement”.

It ought to have been the NIO’s responsibility to have the UK Government’s own understanding of its commitments properly articulated and ready to go. They did not, and the result was an abject episode of British diplomacy, the dire consequences of which Lord Frost has been tasked with unpicking.

Fortunately, the Government seems to have realised that the problems created by the Protocol are not simply a matter for its trade negotiators. A border in the Irish Sea strikes directly at Northern Ireland’s position as an equal part of the United Kingdom. Reassurance needs to be offered on multiple fronts.

It is therefore very welcome that Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State, announced yesterday that the town of Hillsborough is going to become the first in the Province to be awarded ‘Royal status’, in light of its “close ties to the Royal Family”.

Obviously this is only a small thing in itself. But the fine details of life – see also inviting Rangers and Celtic to join the Premier League, or running Great British Railways in national livery – add up. If the Belfast Agreement is to endure as a settlement that respects (and is thus respected by) both communities – and that isn’t certain – the Government must be unafraid to reinforce Northern Ireland’s British status in deed, as well as in word.

There will be those who splutter about “more flags”, just as they did when ministers announced an expanded footprint for UK Government departments or Lewis confirmed they would fly the Union Jack. This is the same sort of thinking that saw litigants try to take Theresa May’s ministry to court over its confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party, as if the very participation of Northern Irish MPs in a British Government breached an Agreement that explicitly affirms their Britishness.

For too long, the institutional attitude of the NIO seemed to reflect the mindset that has afflicted London’s approach to Ulster since the foundation of Stormont: that it is to be quietly sidelined from the UK’s national life until it inevitably joins the Republic. There has apparently been a belated but determined effort to shift this since the election, with one official allegedly complaining that the Department is now ‘too right-wing and too unionist’ – which is only fitting for a right-wing, unionist Government.

The question is whether this can be sustained. Changing deep-seated attitudes takes a long time, and mainland politicians thrust into Northern Irish posts seem especially prone to capture by groupthink. Even today, when food supplies to the Province have only been maintained by unilateral British action, Simon Hoare – the Chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee – claims businesses in North Dorset would “bite your hand off” for Ulster’s semi-detached commercial status. It would be a crying shame if all this good would were squandered by a careless reshuffle.

Henry Hill: Dowden must resist the SNP’s Eurovision power-grab – and force the BBC to up its game

27 May

The SNP’s claims to present a nicer form of nationalism have always been dubious – the movement contains plenty of people whose attitudes are just as ugly as those you’ll find in any other similar cause.

One Nationalist official said the quiet part out loud this week when she tweeted, in response to the UK’s abysmal Eurovision performance, that “we hate the United Kingdom too”.

So far, so standard. But cannier Nationalists had a more dangerous response. Alyn Smith, their foreign affairs spokesman, used the result to argue that Scotland should be allowed to enter the contest separately. Indeed, he said that there were actually no legal barriers to it doing so.

The Government should strenuously resist any such effort. As I explained elsewhere, Britain competes as Britain on the international stage too infrequently as it is. With the happy exception of the Olympics, we lack the national sports teams which provide a common focus for patriotic pride in other countries.

As a result, those occasions where Britain does compete – even in something as intrinsically silly as Eurovision – are disproportionately important.

Recent governments have got this when it comes to the Olympics, where state funding has been ruthlessly directed towards those disciplines and athletes most likely to medal. The result has been extremely impressive performances in 2008, 2012, and 2016.

It’s time to bring that attitude to Eurovision. Simply letting BBC higher-ups choose our entrant has produced terrible results, so it’s time for change. Perhaps Oliver Dowden should even task the Corporation with setting up something akin to Sweden’s Melodifestivalen, a national talent contest which could give acts from across the country a chance to compete (and give us a benefit that isn’t dependent on the votes of other countries).

Lewis joins chorus for less stringent EU checks for Northern Ireland

Ministers are “increasingly worried” about the heavy-handed way the European Union is going about enforcing checks on goods crossing the trade border the Prime Minister agreed to put in the Irish Sea, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Irish Secretary, has claimed that Sainsbury’s are having difficulty moving foodstuffs to their stores in the Province – even though it has no outlets in the Republic, and there is thus no risk of such products entering the EU.

This comes amidst Government anger at claims by Dublin that it is “dangerously fuelling tensions” in Ulster. Irish commentators have been decrying David Frost’s warnings that the Protocol risks fuelling loyalist violence – apparently choosing to forget the way the threat of republican violence was regularly cited as a reason that a light-touch land border could not be countenanced.

Likewise, UK warnings that the Protocol risks undermining the Belfast Agreement are no more absurd than Irish and EU allegations that a land border would have done so.

All this is in line with what we first reported back in March: that Lord Frost’s appointment signalled that the Government was serious about securing substantive changes to the Protocol, which insiders insist the Government was effectively coerced into backing by the Benn-Burt Act. Ministers have already moved unilaterally once to make sure that food supplies to Ulster are not interrupted, and sources suggest they are quite prepared to do so again.

Meanwhile, the Sun reports that veterans who served in Northern Ireland face “fresh torment” as up to 50 ‘legacy inquests’ will launch within weeks, with more than a fifth of all deaths being investigated involving the military.

Ex-servicemen will be called to give evidence into historical killings, and some fear they may face prosecution – even after republican terrorists who commissioned atrocities such as the Brighton bombing have walked free.

Johnny Mercer, who recently quit the Government after accusing the Northern Ireland Office of ‘dragging its feet’ when it came to protecting British troops, attacked some of the inquests as “beyond parody”, including as they do events where “you had IRA men firing automatic weapons and detonating a device trying to kill RUC officers”.

Catch-up: Douglas Ross on the election results

Yesterday, I chaired our latest Zoon event on ‘Scotland the the Future of the Union’ featuring Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, alongside Mandy Rhodes of Holyrood magazine and Professor Nicola McEwan from the Centre for Constitutional Change.

If you missed it, the full video is now available and you can watch it here.