Henry Hill: MSPs scent blood as the Scottish Government fights to thwart the Salmond inquiry

26 Nov

It’s been another week of increasingly bitter fighting between Nicola Sturgeon’s government as MSPs as the Scottish Parliament tries once again to force the publication of its legal advice in the Alex Salmond affair.

When last we checked in on this story, the First Minister was facing calls for the scope of the formal inquiry to be ‘broadened’ as her timeline regarding what she knew when was called into question.

Since then, the Scottish Government has been fighting a ferocious rearguard action against Holyrood’s formal investigation. So much so that Linda Fabiani, an SNP MSP who is chairing the inquiry, has attacked its delays as “unacceptable”. The spur for this was John Swinney refusing to send two senior civil servants to give evidence. In a letter, the Deputy First Minister claimed that their appearance “would create an unacceptable risk” of allowing the ‘jigsaw identification’ of the people who made the original complaints against Salmond.

Murdo Fraser, one of the Conservatives on the investigation, claimed that the SNP “continue to block the vital work of this committee at every turn and are evading any sort of scrutiny.” Jackie Baillie, a Labour MSP, branded it an ‘outrage’. The Scottish Government’s defeat in court by the former First Minister cost taxpayers half a million pounds.

Legislators have also stepped up their efforts to force ministers to publish the legal advice it received ahead of the Salmond case. MSPs voted a second time for the Scottish Government to do so, in what has been described as an ’embarrassing’ defeat for Sturgeon. The vote was 55-45, with four abstentions – the Greens breaking away to vote with the unionist parties and robbing the Nationalists of their usual de facto majority.

Now the Scottish Conservatives are threatening to take the administration to court in an attempt to force their hand.

(Although they apparently won’t be doing the same the SNP’s decision to impose movement restrictions. Adam Tomkins, a Tory MSP and constitutional specialist, has questioned whether or not the Scottish Government’s move to restrict travel between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom is “within Holyrood’s competence”. But the Tories voted for the plans anyway, prompting Oliver Mundell to resign from the front bench.)

For his part, Salmond is continuing to do everything he can to make life difficult for his successor, most recently on defence. His supporters have accused the Nationalist leadership of jeopardising the party’s long-standing commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament after they pressed for the multilateral alternative as part of the Government’s latest defence review. The ex-First Minister told the Times that: “For the SNP, the cause of unilateral nuclear disarmament has been second only to independence throughout the party’s history. It would be a fatal bargain to desert either, with victory in sight.”

If successful, this attack could open yet another fault line inside an increasingly divided Nationalist party, alongside those on gender issues and independence strategy, and give Salmond another opportunity to pose as the voice of the true believers against his successor’s gradualist approach. Martin Docherty-Hughes, the SNP’s defence spokesman, said he was “sceptical at the motivations” of those alleging the Party had betrayed its unilateralist roots.

And if the First Minister didn’t have enough on her plate, she has had to step up to defend her Westminster lieutenant after he was accused of ‘bullying’ a photographer. Critics claim Ian Blackford MP was trying to ‘stir up hatred’ when he called Ollie Taylor out for taking photographs of scenes in his constituency, alleging that the photographer – whom he assumed was based in England – was breaking lockdown rules. Taylor has dismissed his subsequent apology as ‘pathetic’ and has apparently started legal proceedings.

On top of that, Scottish Government ministers “are under growing pressure to release full minutes from meetings of the coronavirus advisory group after accusations that they are failing to be open with the public”, the Times reports. This comes alongside the news that ‘proportionately more people north of border have been dying of coronavirus than in England’, which risks undermining the impression of competence which has lifted the Nationalists’ fortunes in recent months after years of Brexit failing to do so. Sturgeon has also apparently broken ranks on a common UK-wide approach to Christmas restrictions, when polling suggests voters strongly support a common set of rules.

Yet more evidence, then, of a deeply divided party, held together in part by the imminence of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections and then – if the separatists secure a majority, and the British Government is feeble – a second independence referendum.

But can the opposition parties make this count? Douglas Ross has been out saying he’s ‘in it to win it’ in 2021 (although of course he would), and even went so far as to suggest a coalition with Labour to kick the Nationalists out. The latter of course immediately rejected it, but that could simply signal to committed unionist voters that they are less solid on the constitutional question than the Tories whilst the original offer sends the message that Ross’s Conservatives are a mainstream, centre-facing party.

Yet he will need to watch his unionist flank. The decision to support the Nationalists’ travel restrictions has led to a few cut-up membership cards, and the last thing the Scottish Tories need is a Wales-style split amongst their core supporters.

Garvan Walshe: Gloomy Sturgeon projects competence. The Government doesn’t – and the Union may be the price it pays.

19 Nov

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

The Prime Minister’s reset has had immediate effects on Scotland. Out with “devolution is a disaster”, in with a “Union task force” (£). And in the Financial Times to boot, no longer boycotted by the No 10 media operation, but graced by a Prime Ministerial op-ed.

Details about the task force, which is to include English, Welsh and Scottish Tory MPs, are scarce. As the party with no Northern Irish MPs, it would be wise to add a Northern Irish peer, and David Trimble is an obvious candidate. Its mission to make the emotional and cultural case for the Union is welcome. Merely pointing to the fiscal benefits of Scottish membership of the Union is too easily spun as “we pay for you, so shut up” (a problem that scuppered Arthur Balfour’s unsuccessful “killing home rule with kindness” in relation to Ireland at the turn of the century).

The Scottish experience in the Union in the 100 years before the independence push has been a good deal better than the Irish (it’s only a decade since the last Scottish Prime Minister), but that hasn’t stopped the SNP dominating Scottish politics as Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond dominated the Irish scene.

Unlike Redmond and Parnell, the SNP doesn’t hold the balance of power at Westminster, but it has, because of the devolution, a platform to show how it would govern an independent Scotland.

Though it might irk unionists, who can point at failures in education, a self-inflicted wound over trans self-ID, the grubby mess involving Alex Salmond’s trial, and cruelty of anti-Covid measures applied to Scottish students, it’s a platform the SNP has made good use of.

It took maximum advantage of two events — Brexit and the Covid pandemic — to switch the balance of risk away from independence and convince Scots that leaving the Union had become the safer option. Brexit moved public opinion to give independence a slight edge. Covid has turned that slender lead into a solid advantage of around ten points.

The effect of Brexit will not be possible to address in the short term. There’s simply a difference of belief between the Government, which was elected to get Brexit done, after all, and Scottish public opinion, which is strongly against it, but safety and predictability are things the Government should, in principle, be able to get a handle on.

Number 10 has come in for heavy criticism for its management of the pandemic, which, however true it may be in an absolute sense, feels distinctly unfair when compared to Scotland.

England’s record has not been particularly good, but then neither has that of France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, the United States, or most pointedly Scotland. All have had high death rates, found their test and trace systems overwhelmed, and struggled to gain acceptance for public health restrictions. These serious problems are common to almost all Western countries. An independent Scotland is just as likely to suffer from them.

What the SNP has been able to do has been to communicate stability (something that comes more naturally to Sturgeon than the bombastic Salmond). Unlike the Government in London, which has veered between seriousness and hope, Sturgeon has been consistently sober and gloomy. She has avoided overpromising on test and trace, and did not convert useful rapid antigen testing into a grossly over-the-top operation moonshot. This has allowed her to be perceived as far more competent despite having the same Western Standard Average performance in managing the disease.

There is, however, a useful lesson to be drawn from this. Projecting competence does not require achieving excellence. The public will react positively to a government that provides a realistic assessment of the difficulties faced. They understand that governing a country isn’t like pitching for investment in a start up, and would prefer a tolerably realistic assessment of the difficulties ahead then to endure an emotional rollercoaster of hopes raised only to be dashed.

This is not to rule out inspiration as a part of political rhetoric, but it is best for mobilising support for very long-term struggles, like the fight against climate change.

Scots go to the polls next May, and whether the SNP can get an overall majority at Holyrood will be a key test of their movement. Douglas Ross has an uphill battle to stop them, but reset towards realism from the Government could just convince wavering Scots that it’s safe to stay in.

Our Cabinet League Table: Sunak is still top, and Johnson is back in positive territory – just

2 Nov
  • Rishi Sunak’s favourability rating is down from 81.5 per cent to 81.1 per cent – in other words, by so infinitesimal a margin as to make no difference.  In other polls, his soaring rating would be driven by the subsidies that the Treasury is paying out.  In this one, his resistance to lockdowns will be a significant contributor to his popularity.
  • Boris Johnson was marginally in negative territory last month (-10 per cent) and marginally in positive terroritory this month (13 per cent).  We can think of no reason why, given the panel’s decision to mark him down, the late September finding should have been in the red and the October one in the black (or vice-versa had it been case).
  • Matt Hancock slides a bit further into the minus ratings, Gavin Williamson a bit back towards the plus ones.  Liz Truss is up a little and Priti Patel by more, having had a sticky summer over the channel crossings.  All in all, it’s much of a muchness – with Douglas Ross down by about 25 points, now that his Party Conference coverage has faded.
  • These ratings were taken at the end of last week, before the Prime Minister’s emergency press conference on Saturday.  We suspect that it would have lowered his rating and that of the Cabinet; you may disagree; perhaps we will hold a snap survey later this week to find out…

A message from Ross to the Government – and Cummings. They’ve no excuse not to make the Union their top priority.

4 Oct

In a conference which has so far been pretty light on major cut-through moments, Douglas Ross’s speech to (from?) the Scottish Conservative fringe (if you missed it, catch it here) stands out.

Rather than simply focusing his fire on the Scottish National Party, the new Tory leader opens with a blunt message for Tory colleagues south of the border: shape up on the Union, or ship out.

Too many Conservatives, he says, have either given up on the United Kingdom or are even antipathetic to it, saying that: “Many, including some who govern our country, want to see a UK government focused on England.”

Where is this message directed? His deployment of the charge of ‘English nationalism’, a well-worn Remainer trope, has some thinking it could be a shot across the bows of Dominic Cummings and those conducting the negotiations with the EU. Leaving with a deal, in this few, might help to win back some of those former ‘No’ voters who have switched to independence in the aftermath of the 2016 vote.

Yet others are sceptical about the Brexit aspect of this argument, arguing that the detail of it simply doesn’t have the cut through in Edinburgh and Glasgow that politicians and commentators based in London might expect. If the Scottish Nationalists can’t even get traction for their latest grievance campaign against the Internal Market Bill, this argument runs, its not likely that a crucial slice of the electorate is waiting avidly to hear from David Frost.

Instead, Ross’s speech was about waking the Government, and indeed the wider Party, up to just how serious the situation in Scotland has become. Whilst out-and-out ‘English nationalists’ may still be relatively rare creatures, at least amongst the upper echelons of the parliamentary party, complacency is a much more serious problem. Even Tory MPs who are well-disposed to the Union are often not aware of the scale of the challenge.

Fortunately for Ross, the lack of interest he attacks is far from universal. On the parliamentary side, the newly-launched Union Research Group suggests that there remains a strong current of goodwill towards the Union amongst Tory MPs. On the grassroots side, there may soon be a new Friends of the Union group, and independent outfit Conservative Progress recently gathered senior figures from the voluntary party for the launch of their own ‘Love our Union’ campaign.

But these efforts can’t compensate for a lack of direction from the top. The Prime Minister has at his disposal the whole machinery of Her Majesty’s Government, not to mention that of the national Conservative Party and the Tory donors’ address book. Boris Johnson might not have come into politics to fight for the Union – any more than did May to deliver Brexit – but it is the challenge which now confronts him and will, if he loses, define his premiership.

If some of his senior lieutenants don’t place much personal value on the future of the UK, he must impress on them in the strongest terms that it is his personal priority – and, therefore, theirs too.

Our Cabinet League Table. The Prime Minister falls into negative territory.

3 Oct
  • It’s not unprecedented for a Conservative Prime Minister to fall into negative territory in our monthly Cabinet League Table.  In April last year, Theresa May set a new record of scoring the lowest rating it has ever recorded – at -74. Compared to that, Boris Johnson’s -10.3 this month looks tame.
  • Nonetheless, it’s a rotten springboard from which to vault into Party Conference as it begins today.  As we wrote yesterday, it reflects weariness with curbs, frustration with what seem to be fluctuating and arbitrary rules, a sense that Ministers at the top of Government are divided – and a certain frustration with the Prime Minister himself.
  • Liz Truss up to second in the table, from 62 per cent to 70 per cent.  Dominic Raab and Michael Gove’s scores are both down but, with Steve Barclay and Truss, they are the only Cabinet Ministers to clear 50 per cent.  As recently as last December, the entire Cabinet was in the black, with 18 of its members above that 50 per cent rating.
  • Matt Hancock joins Gavin Williamson, Robert Jenrick and Johnson in negative territory. Amanda Milling clambers out of it (just about).  On a happier note, Douglas Ross more than doubles his rating from 26 per cent to 61 per cent: his aggression and energy in Scotland are getting noticed.
  • And finally: the Prime Minister has been low, though not nearly by this much, in the table before – shortly before he resigned as Foreign Secretary.  He bounced back then, and could do so again.  Once again, we make the point that this is much the same panel as gave him a 93 per cent rating after the last election.

Henry Hill: After decades on the defensive, Westminster is finally gearing up to counter-attack the SNP

3 Sep

Johnson assembles ‘Mordor Squad’ to tackle SNP’s assault on Westminster…

One of the biggest challenges faced by the embryonic campaign to keep the United Kingdom together is the decades-long assault waged by Scottish nationalists – and not just the SNP – against its shared institutions.

It is difficult to make the case for a common government when ‘Westminster’ has been turned into a curse word and the word ‘Britain’ has been banished from your lexicon.

This is one of the things that appears to have finally sunk in over the past few years. One of Theresa May’s early interventions in Scotland was notable for its explicitly stating the need to defend the role of Westminster in public life.

Now Boris Johnson has reportedly assembled what the Press & Journal are calling a ‘Mordor Squad’, as part of a broader effort to get much more pro-active at combating the SNP’s attempts to alienate Scotland from the rest of the nation. Their Daniel O’Donoghue summarises the new approach:

“Ministers will be visiting often, there will be a much slicker operation to present the work of the UK Government in Scotland and the Scots Tories will be “unrelenting” in highlighting the domestic failures of Nicola Sturgeon’s government. The hope is that the narrative will shift away from constitutional politics and stave off another independence referendum, but if not, Westminster will be up to speed and ready to face the challenge.”

We got a flavour of this new line of attack this week when the Conservatives accused Scottish ministers of squandering a ‘Britain bonus’ worth £62 billion since the Nationalists came to power at Holyrood in 2007.

The Scottish Government also provided a telling reminder of what Boris Johnson is up against: the Daily Telegraph reports that the SNP have tried to get any reference to ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ stripped out of the nationwide cultural festival Downing Street is planning for 2022. This follows their push to abolish the British Transport Police in Scotland in a long-running campaign to dissolve the bonds of nationhood which hold the Union together – one which has already been successful enough to lead figures such as Michael Gove to shy away from the language of ‘Britain’.

It also highlights once again the folly of trying to replace Westminster governance with an inter-governmental approach when the devolved administrations are not committed to making the Union work, and on that note Alister Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland, has a piece in the Scottish Farmer explaining why ‘common frameworks’ are no adequate substitute for proper, UK-level control of post-Brexit powers. (As we warned at the time.)

…as Ross takes the fight to the SNP

Meanwhile Douglas Ross, the new Scottish Conservative leader and unofficial ‘Deputy Minister for the Union’, has started the push to shift the focus away from the constitution by unveiling a ‘Scotland first’ economic plan, the Scotsman reports. The paper describes it as “a wide-ranging blueprint that includes plans for a town centre regeneration fund and an overhaul of national economic development body Scottish Enterprise”, and will feature measures intended to help ensure more Scottish Government cash is spent in the country.

He has also hired Kirstene Hair, the former Tory MP for Angus, as an adviser and spoken up in favour of the Prime Minister making regular visits to Scotland.

Meanwhile Holyrood’s opposition parties have ‘slated’ Nicola Sturgeon after her Government offered up a legislative agenda containing “the lowest number of planned Bills under any SNP government since devolution”, according to the Courier. Instead, the Daily Record reports that First Minister has promised to set out ‘the question, timing, and terms’ of a second referendum on independence – not one of which is in her remit. A high-profile stand-off over the right to hold another vote will help to keep the issue front and centre ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections.

Scottish Labour wracked by rebellion aimed at forcing Leonard out

As Stephen Daisley points out this week, one critical front in any fight to save the UK is the future of Scottish Labour. The party has a key role in winning over left-of-centre voters who might be persuaded to back the Union but cannot bring themselves to vote for the Tories.

Labour’s under-performance at the last general election not only cost it most of the seats it held itself, but also helped to unseat pro-UK MPs from other parties even when their actual vote was up on 2017.

Richard Leonard, their ineffectual Scottish leader, has long been identified as a stumbling block to any revival and this week saw his critics go over the top. At least four MSPs have called on him to quit, according to the Daily Record, with several resigning positions on the Labour front bench to do so.

However their dear leader shows no signs of being ready to go quietly. He has responded by appointing a new spin doctor to sell the Party’s “radical and transformative agenda”, and Labour List reports that his response to the “failed coup” is a mooted ‘change of personnel’ amongst the MSP group.

Op-eds:

  • Independence is a quack cure for everything – Kevin Hague, The Times
  • If, as polls suggest, the party is about to start for the SNP, why are so many leaving early? – Mandy Rhodes, Sunday Post
  • The SNP is riding high, but it’s divided over independence – Rory Scothorne, The Guardian
  • Scotland is a bigger challenge than Covid or Brexit – Stephen Glover, Daily Mail
  • We need time out from independence debate – Kenny Farquharson, The Times
  • A bridge to Scotland is a great idea but a terrible proposal – Carl McClean, News Letter

Henry Hill: SNP abandon ‘economic case for independence’ as GERS reveals that they don’t have one

27 Aug

Scottish Government abandons ‘economic case for independence’

Kate Forbes, the SNP Finance Secretary, has announced that the Scottish Government have abandoned plans to publish an annual ‘economic case for independence’, the Herald reports.

She claimed that the Covid-19 pandemic was the reason for abandoning the proposal (whilst of course insisting that it simultaneously demonstrated why Scotland should be independent).

However, it may also have something to do with the publication of the annual ‘Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland’ (GERS) figures, which show that the ‘Union dividend’ Scots enjoy from being part of the UK is now almost £2,000 per person. According to the report, £15.1 billion more spent on public services in Scotland than was raised in taxation – an increase of more than £2 billion on last year’s deficit, and one which adds up to 8.6 per cent of Scottish GDP.

This has led to warnings from economic experts that separation from the rest of the UK could (indeed, probably would) require a deep austerity programme to bring Scottish expenditure in line with revenues, especially in the event that the Nationalists tried to stick with Sterling and didn’t have recourse to their own central bank.

Unionists such as Jim Gallagher and Murdo Fraser have also not been shy about pointing out the difficulties this poses for the SNP:

“It is important to stress that the great bulk of the fiscal transfer is represented by higher per capita public spending in Scotland, not by lower tax revenues. So even if the Scottish economy performed in line with the UK average, and the tax take here was equivalent, there would still be a fiscal transfer required of over £1,600 for every person. This gives the lie to the Nationalist response to Gers, which is that, with independence, the Scottish economy could grow more rapidly”.

Yet the key question has to be: will this matter? To date the Scottish Government’s poll ratings – and as a result, signalled support for independence – appears almost entirely impervious to awkward questions about its actual performance.

Just this week Jeane Freeman, their Health Secretary, announced that she was going to stand down from Holyrood at next year’s election in the face of mounting pressure over claims that the Scottish Government pushed health boards to send elderly patients to care homes at the start of the pandemic. According to the Press & Journal: “The transfer of elderly, untested patients from hospital has been linked to the high number of Scottish care home deaths.”

Elsewhere we read about how Scottish ministers handed £30 million of public money to a ferry company on the brink of collapse, and that MSPs are having to fight to get hold of important documents related to the inquiry into the Alex Salmond scandal. Yet despite this, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP continue to poll well.

There are at least signs that the Unionists are starting to take the work of taking down the Nationalists more seriously. Douglas Ross, echoing Ruth Davidson, has now said that pro-UK campaigners made a mistake by demobilising in 2014, when they ought to have pressed their advantage. As a result, the separatists were given space to remobilise and (thanks to the cowardly and counter-productive Vow) seize control of the narrative once again. The Courier reports him as now promising “an unrelenting war on the SNP”.

Meanwhile Michael Gove, who is heading up the Government’s work on the Union, has started openly asking questions about things such as what the franchise should be in a hypothetical second referendum – much to the displeasure of the other side.

Op-eds:

  • The preservation of the Union must be a major priority of Government – Norman Tebbit, Conservative Progress
  • You can’t fight for the Union on the SNP’s terms – Stephen Daisley, Site
  • Welsh Conservatives should call ourselves Conservatives and Unionists on the ballot paper – Siôn Davies, Blue Beyond
  • Scottish Labour’s plight also hurts the cause of the Union – Sebastian Payne, FT

Henry Hill: Having called for Swinney’s head, Ross refuses to back Williamson over A Level fiasco

20 Aug

Ross refuses to back Williamson over the A Levels fiasco

The new leader of the Scottish Conservatives has refused to support Gavin Williamson continuing in post as Education Secretary following the furore over the mishandling of A Level results, according to the i, saying that the Secretary of State needed to “reflect on what happened”.

Douglas Ross did not explicitly call for Williamson’s resignation, but told BBC Scotland: “That is a decision for Gavin Williamson. It’s a decision for the prime minister, if he continues to have the trust of the prime minister. I’m not here to say in your report that I think Gavin Williamson has done a great job and he should continue.”

He really could not have done anything else. When the Scottish Government dashed itself against the same reef a couple of weeks ago, the Scottish Conservatives led the charge in calling for John Swinney’s resignation.

Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to retain her key ally probably set the precedent which saved Williamson’s job, but the Tories couldn’t plausibly justify their attacks on Swinney whilst defending Williamson, who made exactly the same mistakes but with more warning.

In any event, one of Ross’s selling points as the new Scottish Tory leader was his willingness to take on Boris Johnson, who remains deeply unpopular in Scotland. He won’t be entirely unhappy about having been given a new opportunity to demonstrate it.

Welsh Government warns that single market plan endangers the Union

The devocrat campaign against the Government’s proposals for protecting the integrity of the British internal market continue. This week, the Welsh Government has warned that the plans will “accelerate the break-up of the Union”, the FT reports.

If you haven’t been following the debate, this is the latest development in a bitter clash between Westminster and the devolved administrations over what happens to a host of economic powers and regulatory responsibilities which are being repatriated from Brussels. The Government maintains (rightly) that these need to be held at the highest level, now London, to ensure the harmony of the UK common market. The devocrats argue that these powers are ‘devolved’ in principle, and their retention by Westminster is a ‘power grab’.

In fact, as I have set out previously, the real danger to the Union lies not in frustrating the devolved administrations’ insatiable lust for powers, but in ceding them so much power that the core functions of the UK are undermined. Ministers must hold their nerve.

More evidence of the SNP’s domination of Scottish public life

Two stories this week which highlight quite how deep a shadow the current Scottish Government casts over public life north of the border – and how difficult this makes it to hold it to account.

First, Nicola Sturgeon has been criticised for appointing a vocal SNP supporter to lead the ‘independent’ probe into her government’s mishandling of their own school exams scandal. Mark Priestly urged voters to vote for the Nationalists and against the Tories ahead of last year’s general election.

This follows fresh anger at Devi Sridhar, a Scottish Government public health adviser, for once again appearing to blame England (and Wales) for Scotland’s coronavirus woes. (Professor Sridhar has form on this, having previously ‘mistakenly’ described unionists as ‘anti-Scottish’ and claimed that English policymakers were ‘content’ with a certain level of Covid-19 deaths.)

Finally, the Scotsman reports that a cross-party group of MSPs have complained after Linda Fabiani, the Nationalist MSP chairing Holyrood’s inquiry into the Scottish Government’s botched handling of the Alex Salmond investigation, after she appeared to shut down what they consider a legitimate line of questioning. Murdo Fraser was asking Leslie Evans, the Scottish Government’s most senior civil servant, whether or not there was a policy of not leaving female staff alone with the former First Minister.

Elsewhere this week, Evans and Swinney announced that they will not be releasing the legal advice given to Scottish ministers when Salmond took them to court over their bungled inquiry, which bodes well.

All of this comes amidst reports in the Sunday Times that bullying claims against Scottish ministers have ‘soared’ – with more complaints filed than in ‘all of Whitehall’.

Scottish Labour to campaign against independence

Richard Leonard, the embattled leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, has confirmed that his party will oppose independence in the event of a second referendum, according to the Daily Record.

As Tom Harris noted on the site this week, there has been speculation that Labour could try to adopt a more neutral stance on the question in a bid to win back former voters who have defected to the SNP or the Greens. But with the party still on the defensive, such a strategy risked shedding pro-UK voters to the Tories without the guarantee of winning any back. Selling progressive Scots on the Union is less of a quick fix, but represents the only stable path to a long-term future.

Meanwhile Leonard, a left-winger who was viewed as close to the previous national leadership, is facing mounting pressure to resign and make way for someone more effective – most likely Anas Sarwar – ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections, in which the party is still predicted to come third. He is refusing to budge.

Henry Hill: With less than a year to go, Ross sets out his vision for the Scottish Tories

6 Aug

Ross is unopposed as new leader of the Scottish Conservatives

Douglas Ross has said he “won’t be pushed around” by the Government has he takes the helm of the Scottish Conservatives, according to the Times, as he says its time to “turn the page on over a decade of division“.

The Moray MP has been returned unopposed to succeed Jackson Carlaw, who stepped down last week. His is expected to seek a seat in the Scottish Parliament at next year’s devolved elections, until which time Ruth Davidson will deputise for him at First Minister’s Questions.

He has already given an indication of his priorities, promising a ‘jobs plan’ within 30 days of taking up his new position. Ross has also pledged to “strip powers from Holyrood” and pass them to “regions, cities, and towns”, an interesting echo of the Welsh Conservatives’ changing rhetoric on devolution.

Ross has been endorsed by Murdo Fraser, one of the only MSPs viewed as a realistic challenger, and profiled in the Courier, as well as speaking to Michael Crick.

Meanwhile opponents are suggesting that he and Davidson ‘plotted’ to oust Carlaw, pointing to a ‘secret’ meeting between the two of them in his constituency days before the latter’s resignation. Davidson insists Ross only asked her to join his team after he had announced his decision to run.

The change in leadership has clearly got some in the SNP rattled: the usually-slick Nationalist media operation tweeted out a claim that Ross had a “history of racist views” before hurriedly deleting it.

SNP under ‘mounting pressure’ over exam debacle…

The Scottish Government is facing a furious backlash over exam results, with opponents suggesting that John Swinney, the Education Secretary, should have his career on the line.

With Covid-19 rendering exams unsafe, teachers were instead asked to submit predicted grades for their pupils. But the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) believed a lot of the grades to be over-estimates, and ended up downgrading results in 124,000 cases.

Controversially, the SQA measured the predictions against the past performance of the area in question – meaning that bright pupils in poorly performing schools risked being effectively assessed on their postcode, and resulting in sharper reductions in disadvantaged areas.

For her part, Nicola Sturgeon has said that teachers’ assessments were “not credible” – and as Tom Harris has pointed out, she may have a point. But whilst statistical moderation may be fair in aggregate, it doesn’t feel like it when you’re on the receiving end.

A “deluge of appeals” is anticipated – and there are already warnings that even this stopgap might not be available if the same thing happens in England and Wales. The Scottish Government has also been accused of imposing a ‘whack-a-mole’ lockdown on Aberdeen in part to distract from the row.

On the subject of statistics, Sturgeon has also been criticised by the statistics authority for misleading comparisons between England and Scotland – see this report from These Islands for more.

…as Salmond and Sturgeon set for showdown

The current and former leaders of the SNP are set for a furious clash which, Alex Massie argues, yet provide a get-out clause for the Union ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections.

Alex Salmond has reportedly compiled a cache of documents evidencing a ‘conspiracy’ against him by the current Nationalist leadership, according to the Times. This comes as Sturgeon, his successor and one-time close ally, prepares to testify under oath about her administration’s botched investigation into allegations against him.

Salmond’s supporters are already angry that the Scottish Government has missed a deadline for handing over its own documents to the inquiry, as we mentioned last week. And the Herald reports that it has also confirmed that Sturgeon had a meeting with Salmond which she had not previously declared to MSPs.

The battle between these two camps is being waged on multiple fronts. Elsewhere this week, Joanna Cherry MP – a prominent Salmondite – attacked Sturgeon’s fixation on Brexit.

For their part the SNP changed the party’s rules to make it effectively impossible for her to contest Edinburgh Central at Holyrood next year, clearing the way for Sturgeon ally Angus Robertson – not the only controversy over Nationalist selections this week.

Op-eds and Reports:

  • Mystery and suspicion on one question: why did Arlene Foster do it? – Sam McBride, News Letter
  • Is the end for Arlene Foster? – Owen Polley, The Article
  • Hume’s legitimisation of Sinn Fein was an appalling misjudgement – Ruth Dudley Edwards, Website
  • Embracing the compromises of political giants – Tom McTague, The Atlantic
  • London must act to protect the Union, and fast – Ben Lowry, News Letter
  • The mirage of progressive Scotland – David Jamieson, Tribune
  • Presentation is key to beating the SNP – Adam Tomkins MSP, The Scotsman
  • A new Act of Union is needed to save the United Kingdom – Stephen Daisley, Scottish Daily Mail
  • Footnoting the Belfast Agreement’s invisible annex – Owen Polley, The Critic

Carlaw resigns. Counter-intuitively, the Scottish Tories may need a proper leadership contest.

30 Jul

Almost a year to the day after Ruth Davidson dramatically decided to step down as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, her successor has done the same.

Jackson Carlaw, who stepped in as interim leader before being effectively crowned in a lopsided leadership contest against Michelle Ballantyne in February, has decided that he is not the man to lead the Tories into the 2021 Scottish elections.

The immediate result is a great deal of confusion. As the Scottish Tories have two deputy leaders, at the time of writing not even the MSPs know who is stepping up as deputy leader.

More uncertain still is the question of who will succeed him. There is no obvious dauphin amongst the Scottish Parliament group, many of whom were only elected in 2016.

Adam Tomkins, one of Ruth Davidson’s most high-profile allies, is stepping down in 2021 (as is Davidson herself, at least at the time of writing) and in any event had perhaps blotted his copybook by toying with Murdo Fraser’s old idea of breaking away from the Conservative Party. (The band of Scottish Tories who believe in this plan didn’t field a candidate in February – will they this time?)

Twitter, meanwhile, is abuzz with speculation that Douglas Ross, the Member of Parliament for Moray, is about to throw his hat into the ring.

Ross, who was reportedly Davidson’s preferred successor before winning his Westminster seat, resigned from the Government in May rather than defend Dominic Cummings. This may give him some distance from the Government which may help him with Scottish voters who haven’t warmed to Boris Johnson. There is also precedent for an MP simultaneously sitting at Holyrood for a time – Alex Salmond did it between 2007 and 2010.

But would the man Downing Street sources branded ‘Mr Nobody‘, and who split with the UK close-knit leadership, be able to count on the support he’ll need from the UK Conservative machine?

All of which leads to the question of how the transition should be managed. With less than a year to go until what could be a make-or-break Holyrood poll the temptation to avoid a full contest will be strong.

But there is also a case to be made that the Party needs a fuller debate about where it is and how it got here. Carlaw’s resignation follows the planned departures of both Davidson and Tomkins and the stepping down in January of Eddie Barnes, the Tories’ long-serving ‘top spinner’.

The machine which delivered their stand-out 2016 result, of which Davidson was a necessary but not sufficient component, has been shedding parts for a while. A new leader is not the whole solution, any more than the old one was the whole problem.