Dan Boucher: The future of the union is at stake in the upcoming Senedd elections. Conservative voters cannot afford to bow out.

7 Apr

Dr Dan Boucher has previously stood in Westminster and Senedd elections. He lives with his family in Swansea.

One distinctive aspect of Welsh politics since the advent of devolution in 1999 has been the tendency of some Conservative voters not to vote in Assembly or Senedd elections, as they are now called, on principle because they don’t believe in devolution.

This is a very relevant consideration when reflecting on the fact that if everyone who voted Conservative in the 2019 General Election votes Conservative in the 2021 Senedd elections, the Welsh Conservatives will form the next Welsh Government in May 2021, ending 22 years of continual Labour Government.

The same was also true at the last Assembly (as they were then called) elections. If everyone who voted Conservative in the 2015 General Election had voted Conservative in the 2016 Assembly Election then the Welsh Conservatives would have formed the Welsh Government in May 2016, but they didn’t.

Is there any reason to believe that things might be different this year?

Quite apart from the fact that the latest polling shows a significant drop in support for Welsh Labour, and an increase in support for the Welsh Conservatives, such that Labour are now just two per cent ahead, there are some underlying changes that could make 2021 a different experience from 2016. One of these is the increasing talk about Welsh independence.

The Yes Cymru campaign for an independent Wales was initiated shortly before the last Assembly election but was too new to have any impact on its outcome. Since then, however, the movement has grown – with a number of marches in Cardiff, Methyr and Caernarfon – and some polling suggesting support for Welsh independence, while still a minority view, has grown from around 12 to 39 per cent.

Of huge importance, the Yes Cymru movement has even impacted Welsh Labour – at one time an unequivocally unionist party. 2017 saw the formation of its own pro-independence movement – Labour for an Independent Wales – and the selection of three pro-independence Labour candidates in May’s Senedd elections. To allow the implications of this to sink in, one only has to pause and try to imagine an equivalent development within Scottish Labour!

In a context where it seems clear Labour won’t be able to form the next Welsh Government other than in coalition with Plaid Cymru, it’s inconceivable that Plaid won’t make pressing for an independence referendum the price for its support.

Indeed, that scenario is judged to be a sufficient cause for concern to have already come up in UK Cabinet discussions. Of course, Labour First Minister, Mark Drakeford rather suggested to Andrew Marr that he would not agree to a coalition on these terms, but given that where there is no guarantee Drakeford will continue to lead Labour after the election, this development surely has the potential to completely reconstitute the Senedd elections for many Conservative voters?

Anyone who has campaigned in Wales will know the experience of talking to the cohort of Conservative voters who don’t vote in Assembly elections. Invariably they will say something like, “I always vote Conservative in the Westminster elections but never vote in the Assembly elections because I think we should be governed from Westminster. I voted against the creation of the Assembly and think it’s a waste of money.”

In the past when encountering this view on the doorstep, one would respond by pointing out that as there now is a Welsh Assembly and Welsh Government, their decision not to vote was denying them a voice on key issues like health and education. By not voting in Assembly elections they were making themselves less and not more like the voters in England because they were cutting themselves off from the opportunity to vote on what many regard as the single biggest election issues, the NHS, which in Wales is wholly governed from Cardiff.

However, voters who would rather give up their ability to have any impact on one of the biggest election issues, the NHS, than authenticate an institution they regard as an indecent qualification of the union, are only likely to maintain that position for so long as doing so does not help facilitate what they regard as the greater danger. Prioritising expressing disdain for devolution becomes somewhat irrelevant when independence becomes the presenting issue, especially if doing so could inadvertently help the cause for independence.

Moreover, if this cohort of Conservative voters now concludes that in these changed political circumstances, the priority must be a unionist majority Senedd, such that for the first time they vote in the Senedd elections, then this will no doubt come as something of a relief, as it will also enable them to rediscover their voice on the NHS, Education, Agriculture and Tourism which they have not enjoyed for nearly a quarter of a century.

Then of course, in addition to those Conservative voters who don’t vote in Senedd elections on principle, there are those who don’t simply because they don’t see it as a priority. While their decision hitherto not to vote in Senedd elections is not based on the principle of not wanting to authenticate devolved government, it is likely that many could nonetheless be moved to vote for the first time in these elections because of their commitment to preserving the union and recognition that henceforth, it will be imperative to ensure that the Senedd has as strong a unionist majority as possible.

Some might respond to the above analysis by pointing out that just as some Conservatives only vote in Westminster elections, the same is true of some Labour voters. On this basis surely one might equally well say that if all those who voted Labour in 2019 in Wales vote Labour in 2021, Labour will form the next Welsh Government?

In a context, however, where support for independence remains a minority view, there must be the possibility that some Labour voters whose loyalty to the union is greater than having a permanent Labour First Minister (regardless of whether or not they usually vote in Senedd elections), might vote Conservative on this occasion to send a message to Welsh Labour?

In this sense the 2021 elections could have some similarities to 2019 when Labour voters turned to the Conservatives to honour Brexit, with constitutional concerns trumping normal party loyalties. Some Labour voters might find this an easier proposition to entertain this year given that in a democracy being permanently in power progressively erodes one’s authority. Labour has been in government now for 22 years without interruption. That’s already unprecedented in modern British history and yet it is now seeking another five years, which would take its total innings to 27 years.

At the end of the day, whatever way one looks at it, the upcoming election is distinctive because the new Senedd will not merely discuss how to manage the Welsh NHS and education system within the current devolved settlement. It will also inevitably engage with the independence question and in that context, unionists up and down Wales need to vote to ensure that the only serious party of Government that is passionately committed to the union, the Conservative and Unionist Party, (there are no “Conservatives for an Independent Wales”) is represented as strongly as possible.

Interview with Douglas Ross: Sturgeon is not in the clear, and is part of a “conspiracy against getting out the truth”

24 Mar

“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?”

Ross: “Yes.”

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.”

Simon Hart: Drakeford’s divisive politics must come to an end. In May, Welsh Conservatives offer a better future.

12 Mar

Simon Hart is the Secretary of State for Wales.

Wasn’t it Ron Davies – the former Labour Secretary of State for Wales – who said that devolution is a process, not an event?

I wonder what he would have made of Wales’ First Ministers recent comments that “the Union is over as we know it”. Knowing Ron, he would have spotted the real reason for this sudden reference to “home rule” – a realisation that to stay in post on May 6 Mark Drakeford needs to extend not just an olive branch but the whole tree to his separatist friends in Plaid Cymru.

The wider context of the First Minister’s comment was a criticism of the “institutional architecture” between the devolved administrations and UK Government.

His sudden fascination with constitutional detail seems out of place at a time when all eyes are on economic recovery.

It is regrettable that the Welsh Labour Government has created political barriers. Sometimes these barriers have distorted fact with political spin, leading to an us-versus-them narrative in different parts of the United Kingdom.

In Wales we are “one people” and “one society”, made up of different cultural backgrounds but all with one common identity. It is a tolerant and diverse society that I am deeply proud of, as is most of Wales. Being fiercely patriotic and supportive of the strengths that a union provides is not a contradiction in terms. It isn’t a political gesture but a distinctly practical one. Yet in their own way both Nicola Sturgeon and Drakeford have painted it as an either/or choice, by trying to force a debate that is not a priority in the day to days lives of most people.

The Welsh Government is not the same thing as Wales, and the two should not be conflated. In last week’s Budget we committed to a range of ways to get more investment into Wales, and we want to involve local authorities, communities and their elected MPs, as well as to forge a collaborative approach with the administration in Cardiff Bay. A mechanism to get cash to the areas that need it most should not be the subject of a row. The Welsh Government alone does not have a monopoly on being able to make decisions in the best interests of the Welsh people.

That is why we are putting local communities firmly back in the driving seat. It’s why, by combining what is best about local decision making with the strength and security that the UK Treasury can provide, we are levelling up the life chances of everyone in the nation.

Yet the Welsh Government’s response to last week’s budget was disappointing, focusing on its own resourcing despite the £740 million uplift that was added to its existing £15 billion of core funding.

In its response to the Budget, the Welsh Government made no mention of support for Welsh people both in and out of work, the furlough and self-employed schemes put in place last year by UK Government – which have protected over 500,000 Welsh jobs so far, nor any reference to the six-month extension of the universal credit uplift and £500 for Working Tax Credit claimants will continue to shore up the finances of people across Wales. And there was a deafening silence from Cardiff Bay about fuel and beer duty, or the vital extension of reduced VAT for the holiday industry upon which the economy of Wales depends.

We should not think of these vast sums of money as some kind of Treasury favour, deserving of gratitude or subservience. That is to miss the point. But you might think that from any Unionist Government there would be some mention of the new Recovery Loan scheme for businesses and Help to Grow initiatives that will support businesses with training and with paying for productivity-enhancing software, such as HR management and e-commerce.

Or of the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, which all Welsh local authorities can bid into, which will enable the UK Government to fund capital infrastructure projects in every town and community. Or of the £150 million community ownership fund – or “buy your boozer” fund as it is already nicknamed – which will allow Welsh towns and villages to protect at risk pubs or other much-loved leisure venues, keeping them from closure by running them as a community.

There was also bit of “jam today” too for Wales. The Chancellor announced funding for a new Hydrogen Hub at Holyhead and for the Global Centre for Rail Excellence in Neath Port Talbot – both creating up to 1000 jobs throughout their lifespan. To speed up the creation of a further 13,000 jobs, he brought forward funding for three growth deals across Wales, worth £791 million altogether, all of which hardly got a mention.

The UK Government could have given the Welsh Government a £1 trillion funding uplift, and in its public response it would still be £5 short of what it was expecting. This sort of knee-jerk criticism only risks polarising the communities who expect us to make things work for them, not argue about abstract ideas.

For this year’s Senedd elections, the Welsh Conservatives are putting forward an offer for the chance of a Welsh Government that works hand in hand with the UK Government to rebuild our economy. A Welsh Government that will work with the UK Government, not against it.

I hope that our “two for the price of one” special offer will be a sensible and credible offer for voters in Wales in May.

Andy Street: Here in the West Midlands, we have been ‘levelling up’ for four years

9 Mar

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

When I became the West Midlands’ first Metro Mayor four years ago, one of my pledges from the outset was to be a Mayor for the whole region, not just Birmingham.

I knew that, in order to properly unite our seven constituent boroughs, it was vital to dispel the long-standing notion that the Second City usually got all the attention, and the lion’s share of inward investment.

My ambition has always been to ensure all of our areas benefitted from the significant growth we enjoyed before the pandemic hit, to ensure that no communities were left behind as we revived the fortunes of the region.

In that sense, my job, and the work of the West Midlands Combined Authority, could be seen as a regional version of the ‘levelling up’ agenda. I am certain that one of the most successful aspects of devolution has been the ability for local decision makers to direct investment proportionally in this way, using local knowledge to ensure money builds a robust economy across the region.

I want to use this column to explain how one of our great cities – Wolverhampton – continues to benefit from this approach, and how investment and major projects are set to propel its recovery.

Much like constituencies in the North, Wolverhampton returned two ‘red wall’ Conservative MPs in Stuart Anderson and Jane Stevenson, so it is important that voters see results in terms of investment. However, the fact is that here in the West Midlands, we have been busy ‘levelling up’ for four years.

Just this week I visited to see Wolverhampton become the first big city to unveil our cycle share scheme, which will quickly spread out to cover the entire West Midlands. It was a fitting place to launch our version of Boris Bikes, because the city is buzzing with good news and progress at the moment.

Arriving, it was brilliant to see the progress being made on the new £150m transport interchange. We have demolished a drab 1960s station and are transforming it into the new interchange, that for the first time will link up with our expanding metro network, plus newer, greener buses and, of course, the new bikes. Backing this investment in Wolverhampton was one of the first decisions I made as Mayor, because I knew that improving transport connectivity would be crucial to driving forward investment and the city’s future. It has also provided the kind of tangible improvement that is so vital to the concept of ‘levelling up’.

Supercharged with support from Government, especially Wolverhampton-born Robert Jenrick, the Communities Minister, the plan is working – with projects transforming the city.

My vision is to make Wolverhampton the national centre of construction, and the Black Country’s position as a pioneer of ‘brownfield remediation’ (the science of reclaiming derelict eyesores) makes it perfectly placed to achieve this position.

Last year we put Wolverhampton at the heart of our bid for the Government’s funding of ‘shovel ready’ schemes, securing £14.9 million for the National Brownfield Institute at the former Springfield Brewery. Itself a major regeneration project, which is now well underway, this will put the city in a national leadership position when it comes to the skills, training, and expertise needed for remediating and redeveloping brownfield sites – meaning local people will be in pole-position to get a brilliant career in our successful construction industry. It will also mean that my ‘brownfield first’ housing policy for the region can be delivered by workers from our region.

On Boxing Day, we saw Wolverhampton win over £15 million from the Future High Streets Fund to drive the local economy forward. This was a very significant investment, which was followed by an even bigger £25 million in the budget through the Towns Fund. Crucially, the local spirit of levelling up means that this £40 million will not just go to the city centre, but will be shared with two other Wolverhampton communities, Bilston and Wednesfield.

And last month saw the culmination of a plan we have been working on as a local team for months: to persuade Government to move hundreds of good-quality civil service jobs from Whitehall to Wolverhampton.

With the move of Jenrick’s own Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to Wolverhampton we will see a major boost to the City’s trade and local businesses and open up brilliant civil service careers to local people.

But, more importantly, an idea like this moves decision making into the regions, further raising the Government’s understanding and commitment to Wolverhampton, the Black Country and the West Midlands.

Last week’s budget provided the first glimpse of this baring fruit – with the announcement that a new taskforce to accelerate Methods of Modern Construction would be based in the MHCLG’s new Wolverhampton offices, with £10 million of seed funding.

Another important factor in building a level economy across the region is to ensure that all of our areas can benefit from each other’s economic strengths. I have made no secret of my determination to support the West Midlands place as the UK’s car-making heartland, not least with my calls for a ‘gigafactory’ in Coventry, which is the centre of our automotive cluster.

So I was delighted to open a new Electrical Vehicle and Green Technologies Training Centre at the City of Wolverhampton College, which will deliver the UK’s first scheme to train technicians to work on electrical and hybrid vehicles.

Finally, there can new few better ways of levelling up across a region than by connecting people to job opportunities through the ability to travel easily between neighbouring boroughs. Our ambitious plans to reopen a rail line between Wolverhampton and Walsall – which has been closed to passengers since the Beeching cuts – is now fully funded, with work set to start imminently.

Wolverhampton has faced many economic challenges; the collapse of Carillion hit the city hard, and the closure of the iconic Beatties department store provided a powerful symbol of the problems faced by its city centre. Throughout the pandemic those challenges have continued, with key employers heavily affected by the economic impact of Covid-19, such as aerospace firm Collins or hospitality giant Marstons.

But these last few months have shown by working effectively with Government – and employing the full power of devolved decision making – we can secure the resources and investment needed to not only compete regionally, but nationally too.

Henry Hill: The SNP’s disdain for MSPs is discrediting the Scottish Parliament

25 Feb

It’s been just over two weeks since we last looked in on the unfolding scandal currently gripping Scottish politics, and relations between the SNP and the opposition continue to sink to new depths.

For those who haven’t been following the story – which has received scandalously little attention in the southern press – the Scottish Parliament is trying to conduct an inquiry into how the Scottish Government mishandled complaints against Alex Salmond. But having pledged her full cooperation, Nicola Sturgeon seems to have been trying to thwart MSPs at every turn.

Public money has been spent preparing ‘forgetful’ witnesses. Requests to broaden the scope of the inquiry have been denied. Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband, contradicted his wife’s testimony and then tried to refuse to return and explain himself. Most significantly, the SNP has tried very hard to prevent Salmond from publishing his evidence.

First, the inquiry voted against publishing the former First Minister’s submission on a party-line vote, citing legal advice. When the Spectator secured a legal ruling to the effect that there was no barrier to publication, MSPs nonetheless voted against publication again, also on independence lines. The issue was referred to the Corporate Body of the Scottish Parliament, which finally voted to publish.

But rather than being the end of the saga, the Crown Office (Scotland’s prosecutors) wrote to it to demand further censorship. Salmond’s evidence was retracted and redacted. But as the whole document is now in the public domain, we can see that the redactions relate not to the danger of identifying vulnerable women, but to criticism of the First Minister.

Now MSPs are demanding that James Wolffe, the Lord Advocate, appear before Holyrood to explain himself, whilst the Crown Office has also been ordered to release additional evidence which Salmond claims will prove the existence of the conspiracy against him.

Regardless of whether or not that turns out to be true, the scandal is having a toxic effect on the reputation of the Scottish Parliament. There is mounting concern amongst the SNP’s opponents about the extent of its apparent grip on civic life. Mainstream pro-UK politicians are talking in dire terms about the implications for the standing of the Scottish Parliament, doubtless concerned about being outflanked as devosceptic sentiment rises on the movement’s outer fringes.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. It seems increasingly apparent that the Scottish Parliament can’t hold the executive to account. But Scots have another government. Does there come a point where Westminster needs to consider stepping in and setting up a proper independent inquiry into the whole business?

The sheer pace at which this scandal is developing certainly helps to explain why the Scottish Government seems so determined not to delay the upcoming Holyrood elections, even as Sturgeon insists the situation is so serious that she needs to offer a slower roadmap out of lockdown than Boris Johnson. (Only a cynic would suggest she might also not want to give broadcasters an excuse to stop televising her daily ‘coronavirus briefings’.)

But it remains to be seen if any of this actually sticks. The SNP have been accruing bad news stories for months – we’ve even made a recurring feature of them for this column – and yet their polling seems scarcely affected. With reports that the Prime Minister’s resolve to refuse a second referendum might be weakening, it becomes more important than ever that the opposition in Scotland make this count.

The Union policy Lewis wanted, why he left – and how his unit will replaced by a Cabinet committee

24 Feb

So far, it looks as if Oliver Lewis’s sudden departure as head of the Union Unit at Downing Street came down to a matters of personnel rather than policy, a casualty of the complex mess of court factions vying for the Prime Minister’s ear that our editor examined at the weekend.

This isn’t surprising. Having hand-picked the Vote Leave veteran to head up his Union strategy, it would be surprising if Boris Johnson suddenly found that he disagreed with his proposals. If there was a division, it seems to have been between the attack dogs and others, such as Michael Gove, who preferred not to stir the SNP up and to avoid allegations of ‘power grabs’.

(And indeed, we now here that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has circulated a note to Cabinet emphasising the importance of a new project he’s been working on regarding ‘inter-governmental relations’ between Westminster and the devolved executives. What timing.)

But personnel decisions can have policy consequences, and there are at the very least people in Government who want to signal a change of course. The Times has been briefed  that the move represented a return of ‘grown-up government’, which in practise seems to mean undermining the Prime Minister’s (perfectly justified) determination to refuse the SNP a second referendum and dusting off uninspiring non-solutions such as a constitutional convention.

This contrasts strongly with the stance taken not only by Lewis but his predecessor, Luke Graham, who opened a recent article thus:

Much ink has been spilt on the problems faced by the Union, and solutions are hard to find without falling into the well-rehearsed arguments for federalism or simply handing more powers to the devolved administrations — both options I oppose. For my part I believe the strategy of giving nationalists more powers is as effective as giving a bully your lunch money — it will never satisfy their desires and will entrap you in a prism of fear and powerlessness.”

Rather than ‘just saying no for ever’, Lewis’s plan was seemingly built around a couple of core aims: to shift the battle with the separatists onto favourable turf, and to build up Whitehall’s capacity to actually coordinate and implement the subsequent campaign.

The first part would involve both new policies, built on research which suggested that existing pro-UK efforts were failing to tap into important arguments and wells of feeling amongst the electorate, and a new approach. The experience of bringing the UK Internal Market Act to the statute book in the teeth of SNP opposition had shown both that voters really are just not especially interested in the finer points of the devolution settlement and that the SNP, having been allowed to go on the offensive for so long, was an underwhelming foe when forced onto the back foot.

Meanwhile, the lessons learned getting Britain ready for leaving the European Union – and more specifically, getting Whitehall in a fit state to get Britain ready – would be applied to Union policy, rather than having orders from Graham or Gove getting lost or bogged down in inter-departmental haggling.

It’s now not clear what the status of any of this is, nor that Johnson is prepared to give anyone the sort of authority they would need to drive such an ambitious programme through against inevitable opposition from the business-as-usual brigade.

Indeed, we hear that there may not actually even be a successor to Lewis at the Union Unit, which may instead be replaced by a Cabinet committee bringing together Johnson, Gove, Rishi Sunak, David Frost, and the three territorial Secretaries of State, not one of whom will have the Union as their full-time responsibility. (Guido confirms this.)

All of this has not gone down well with many backbench Conservative MPs, who are concerned not only at the unprofessional impression given by the churn at the Union Unit but also by the mooted shift in tactics. Some were not aware until now of the divisions inside the Government over the correct approach, and few are well-disposed towards the conventional, conciliatory strategy hinted at by the Times.

Independent pro-Union campaign organisations are also disappointed, and several have apparently reached out to Lewis to see if elements of his strategy can be implemented without Downing Street’s imprimatur.

We journalists are sometimes accused of paying too close attention to inside-baseball stories such as who’s in and who’s out at Number Ten. It’s certainly true that they shouldn’t matter terribly much – and if these advisers were merely the agents of a strong prime ministerial will, they wouldn’t. But if Johnson really is prepared to see his entire policy on a key issue hinge on them, hirings and firings will remain events of outsize importance. Only he can change that.

Andrew RT Davies: Wales. Here’s how we can extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

24 Feb

Andrew RT Davies is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and Assembly Member for South Wales Central.

One of the many unfortunate, if unintended, consequences of the Blair devo-revolution has been to undermine the Union’s sense of “permanence” – both from an ideological and an institutional perspective.

Designed to see off the nationalist threat, devolution has merely shifted the political narrative into an endless cycle of debates around further powers, with little correlation emerging between the performance of devolved governments and the level of support for independence.

It’s scarcely been more fashionable among constitutional experts (and BBC journalists) to view separatism as inevitable, but I certainly don’t share the view that it’s a foregone conclusion. Far from it.

The patriotic fightback has started and, as the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, these are some of the steps I want to see us take to extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

Put ‘Project Fear’ on ice and champion the pride of Britain

As Unionists we can often be guilty of basing arguments in process or economics. All very valid, and all incredibly important, but we need to own the emotive, patriotic argument – remembering and learning the valuable lessons from the victorious Brexit campaign many of us were part of.

We need to put “Project Fear” on ice and champion the pride of Britain.

I’m a proud Welshman. Proud of a Wales that consistently punches above its weight on the sporting and cultural scene, and has been to the fore on the pandemic frontline in delivering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through Wrexham-based firm, Wockhardt.

But I’m also a proud Brit. Incredibly proud of our world-leading armed forces, our pharmaceutical industry, our rule of law and our enviable creative industries.

It’s the very best of our country and a symbol of the greatest union the world has ever seen – socially, culturally and economically. Why would we want to undermine and banish that great unity for division and separation?

But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels and the British state can do more. Why don’t our great institutions such as the Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, British Library project themselves into Wales? That footprint can and should be easily corrected. Let’s do it.

And yes, where appropriate let’s champion the economic benefits too. In Wales, we’ve benefited enormously through the various support schemes delivered during the pandemic by the Government, which have saved hundreds of thousands of Welsh jobs during the recent crisis, and are now saving thousands of lives with Britain’s hugely successful vaccination programme.

I’m a proud Welshman and proud Brit and make no apology for it, and that’s the turf I want to see us fight on. Let’s dictate the terms of engagement, and redouble our efforts to make the positive and patriotic case for Wales, Britain and the Union.

Minister of the Union and inter-governmental relations

There’s no greater champion of the UK than the Prime Minister, and he’s taken the duty head-on with responsibility as Minister for the Union, working alongside the three excellent secretaries of state.

One of the PM’s greatest strengths is on the campaign trail and while it was brilliant to welcome him to Wales last week, it’s a shame current restrictions prevent him from engaging more widely with the public on his agenda to level up all parts of the UK, which will be the cornerstone of securing the Union’s long-term future.

It’s been well briefed in the press that Lord Dunlop’s (as yet unpublished) report recommends the creation of a new cabinet position for the Union, and suggests that it should be elevated in line with the other great offices of state to help keep the UK intact.

Whether this is necessary is a call for the PM, and the PM alone, but one area I have long felt needs attention is inter-governmental relations within the UK.

It’s my personal view the Joint Ministerial Committee requires urgent reform/reprioritisation to improve collaboration and decision-making, particularly with Brexit and the significance of UK-wide frameworks.

The devolved leaders are mischievous at the best of times and their aims are not always aligned to ours, particularly Holyrood’s EU-flag-waver-in-chief.

But an overhaul is required to shower them with attention and keep them in check, particularly when they pretend they have responsibility for areas they do not.

Unleash the opportunities of Brexit

While it may seem counter-intuitive, particularly given the strength of feeling in Scotland on the issue, Brexit provides us with an opportunity to reaffirm the benefits of our Union, and to shift the focus onto a positive discussion around the country itself.

The UK’s new found agility has allowed us to save lives thanks to a dynamic procurement strategy and rapid rollout of Coronavirus vaccinations, in comparison to the European Union’s overly bureaucratic and beleaguered jabs programme. Team GB at its best!

But there are other tangible benefits to Brexit, with the automatic repatriation of a vast array of new powers to these shores, including the devolved nations.

We need to ensure the new Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) delivers for our poorest communities – levelling up our country – and reaching people who were for so long ignored.

This is an exciting opportunity for the Conservative government to transform all four corners of our country, and a game-changing regeneration scheme would be a powerful cocktail to the politics of division, separation and hate.

Devolution should never have been about power-fanatics in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont – it’s about local communities

The biggest failure of Welsh devolution has been the hoarding of power in Cardiff Bay with people in north Wales feeling as disconnected with the Senedd as they ever did with the EU.

Devolution was meant to bring power and decision-making closer to communities, and it’s not too late to ensure that’s the case, albeit the UK government will have to be the driving force.

It’s important UK government spending is effectively targeted and given the PM’s ambition for large-scale projects, I’d like to see the designation of “Union Highways” that would unblock Wales’s arterial routes on the M4, A40 and A55 and boost important cross-border growth.

Where devolved government fails, let’s help local authorities and the communities they serve.

No more referendums, no new constitutional chaos, but a sole focus on recovery

People in all corners of the country want to see politicians across the UK working in partnership to focus on defeating Coronavirus and the other challenges we face.

And whatever happens post-May, the UK government should stay strong. The Scottish referendum of 2014 was a once-in-a-generation vote, one which the separatists lost. End of.

The energy and resources of governments at Westminster, Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont should be focused on our post-pandemic recovery. Anything else would be unforgivable.

And as we emerge from this crisis, Conservative energies must be focused on improving everyday lives and rebuilding our economy, which will be the best antidote to the constitutional fanatics.

So let’s back Wales, back Britain and get on with the patriotic job of building back our country better than ever.

Henry Hill: There’s something rotten in the state of Scotland. But can anyone do anything about it?

18 Feb

Two weeks ago, when we last checked in on the Alex Salmond affair, we led with the calls for an independent, judge-led inquiry into the whole thing as confidence that the Scottish Parliament could actually hold the Scottish Government to account.

Well readers, it has got much, much worse since then.

Here’s what’s happened. First, the MSPs on the Holyrood inquiry into the Salmond affair voted 5-4 against publishing the former First Minister’s evidence. As a result, he refused to appear. They claimed this was on legal advice, but opponents smelt a rat because the vote was split exactly along independence lines.

As a result the Spectator, which had previously been calling for a judge-led inquiry, went to court to seek a clarification about whether the original judgement precluded the publication of the evidence. In their own words: “Lady Dorrian made it clear that the court had no intention of obstructing a parliamentary inquiry or stopping a free press from doing its job — the Salmond evidence can now be published and the whole story told.”

Yet this is not what happened. Despite the judge’s clarification, the Committee once again voted against publishing Salmond’s submission – again pleading legal advice, although in light of Lady Dorian’s comments it isn’t obvious what this is. Journalists have also pointed out that this second vote was on publishing a revised submission which MSPs haven’t actually seen.

Now the decision has been referred to the Corporate Body of the Scottish Parliament, which meets today. Its membership comprises five MSPs, one from each party (the Independent used to be a Green), plus an SNP chair. If a majority of the ordinary members vote for publication, will the Presiding Officer side with the minority to block it?

Whatever happens today, the saga seems to be turbo-charging a sea-change in attitudes towards the Scottish Parliament. Adam Tomkins, a high-profile Conservative MSP and no devosceptic, has been leading the charge, comparing the state of the SNP administration to that of John Major’s Government in the ‘sleaze’ era.

Meanwhile Mandy Rhodes, the editor of Holyrood magazine, has been if anything even more brutal. In an editorial entitled ‘Something Rotten’, she brutally assesses not just the Salmond inquiry but the litany of broken promises and governance failures we cover so regularly in this column. Rhodes concludes:

“They say that a fish rots from the head down. And something is beginning to reek. The question will be whether by 6 May the electorate is simply prepared to just hold its nose.”

That’s quite a journey for a magazine which marked the advent of Nicola Sturgeon’s first ministership by branding her the ‘Angel of the North’ and running a cover posing the question ‘Can she do no wrong?’. And here’s Alex Massie, another man who’s no devosceptic but finds himself compelled by circumstances to reach for our hymn sheet:

“For this now risks becoming something greater than a mere fiasco. It is fast reaching the point at which it embarrasses all Scotland’s political parties and the institution of parliament itself. Holyrood’s committee structure is plainly incapable of dealing with issues of this kind and Scotland’s political culture has – equally obviously – failed to produce or promote representatives capable of discerning the distinction between party interest and the public interest.”

For his part, Salmond remains keen to testify. The Herald reports that he has ‘cleared his diary’ after submitting the revised version of his evidence. But he continues to insist that its publication is a precondition of his appearing before MSPs, and the Nationalists seem deeply committed to preventing that from happening.

In the meantime, the SNP have suffered from their usual brace of bad-news stories. Jeane Freeman, the Health Secretary, has been forced to deny that officials spent days ‘plotting how to spin’ an official report into care home deaths. Stephen Daisley writes about the Scottish Government’s ‘education stitch-up’, as ministers shunt the publication of an official report into education back until after the upcoming elections – although apparently the courts may yet intervene. Taxpayers apparently face a £100m bill over a bungled prosecution of businessmen involved in a takeover of Glasgow Rangers football club.

And on the party civil war side, we have Kenny MacAskill, a Nationalist MP and critic of Sturgeon, calling for the Scottish independence campaign to be formally separated from the SNP.

But as ever, the question is: will any of this make an impact on the Scottish electorate? There are some signs of a fall in poll support for independence, which is very welcome. But the Nationalists have faced a torrent of awful news stories for months without it knocking them off track to form the next Scottish Government. Clearly the unionists need to up their game – hopefully a slick new attack ad which emerged on Twitter this week is a taste of things to come.

P.S. Writing in the Times, Kenny Farquharson points out that the Government’s mooted ‘Festival of Brexit’ has been captured by the usual suspects and acquired a new working title: ‘Festival UK* 2022’. We humbly submit that if Ministers are serious about waging the ‘culture war’, they can start by making sure that a festival celebrating this country doesn’t feel the need to qualify the name of the country. Honestly.