Henry Hill: Johnson prepares to take a more ‘robust’ line on the Union… but muzzles devosceptics

2 Jul

Fight for the Union: Government mulls ‘devolution revolution’… but tries to muzzle Tory critics

Earlier this week, the Times reported that ministers are considering setting up new, UK-wide economic and security bodies as part of a bid to enhance the standing of the British Government in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

This move could finally mark an end to the previous practice of feebly handing over reserved powers to the devolved institutions, even when this risked great damage to the Union, in the name of the “spirit of devolution”.

Apparently, “Tory ministers are preparing to be more “robust” with their SNP counterparts in taking responsibility for macroeconomic and security issues”, and ideas will be brought forward by a new Union Policy Implementation Committee, supported by a Downing Street-based ‘Union Unit’.

This may be some comfort to the Scottish Conservatives, many of whom are deeply concerned that the Prime Minister doesn’t grasp the scale of the danger posed to the Union by the next Holyrood elections. (Of course, holding a referendum is one thing ministers could be ‘more robust’ about.)

It also comes in the same week as Boris Johnson’s high-profile clash with Nicola Sturgeon over the latter’s threat to start quarantining visitors from England. Following the ugly politics we have already seen from the Welsh Government, this highlights once again the real damage the ‘Four Nations’ approach to the Union, so thoughtlessly endorsed by minister after minister, is doing to the integrity of our country.

But there are apparently limits to the boldness of this approach. This week Guido Fawkes reported that the whips have been cracking down on Conservative MPs who want to break ranks and criticise devolution. This is further proof that the divisions we revealed in May are not going away, and will continue to exacerbate the coalition-building dilemma faced by the Welsh Tories.

For their part, the ruling devophiles amongst the Cardiff Bay leadership are reportedly doubling-down on their efforts to excise wrongthink on this question: apparently expressing devosceptic views is enough to get even already approved candidates summoned back for re-assessment.

But silencing such critics will only slow (even further) the Government’s painfully slow awakening to the dangers of the current constitutional situation. We must hope that, like the Eurosceptics before them, it will not be long until some true believers slough off the whip on this particular question.

Elsewhere this week Joanna Cherry MP, an ally of Alex Salmond and prominent figure on the SNP’s ‘fundamentalist’ wing, called on the Nationalists to be prepared to make a bid for independence without a referendum.

Plaid Cymru launches investigation after Senedd candidate accused of antisemitism

The Welsh Nationalists have launched an investigation after a prominent Jewish organisation called for one of their candidates to be permanently barred from the Party over an antisemitic tweet.

According to Wales Online, high-profile Plaid activist Sahar Al-Faifi tweeted the same claim about Israel training US police officers which ended up seeing Rebecca Long-Bailey sacked from the Labour front bench.

This is not the first time this has happened: Al-Faifi was previously suspended from Plaid over a series of antisemitic social media posts published in 2014, but was since reinstated. Apparently the Nationalists would not confirm whether or not she remains a candidate.

DUP call for O’Neill to ‘step aside’ over funeral attendance

The Democratic Unionist Party are calling on Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and Deputy First Minister, to step aside to allow a police investigation into a republican funeral held earlier this week.

O’Neill, who has repeatedly urged the public to maintain social distancing and obey other public health guidelines, flagrantly breached them at the funeral of Bobby Storey, an IRA terrorist and senior Sinn Fein official.

Now the DUP are saying that it will be difficult for Arlene Foster, the First Minister, to appear alongside O’Neill at the Executive’s coronavirus press conferences. For her part, the Sinn Fein leader says that she is “satisfied” that her actions were within public health advice.

Anglesey constituency protected from ‘radical’ boundary shake-up

ITV reports that the Government has committed to protecting the boundaries of Ynys Môn, the parliamentary constituency which corresponds to the Isle of Anglesey, ahead of “the most radical shake-up of Welsh parliamentary seats in more than a century”.

Under the proposals, Wales’ seats will be brought into line with England’s in terms of size. As a result, the Principality’s representation in the House of Commons will be cut by almost a quarter, from 40 to about 32. This is part of a broader push to equalise constituencies across the UK.

Anglesey will now join four other island-based exceptions to the new rule: Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Western Isles) in Scotland, and two seats on the Isle of Wight. The move may help the Conservatives, who won the seat at the last election, as the adjoining area of mainland Wales is slim pickings for the party.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon sets out plan to ‘unlock’ Scotland… one day before England

25 Jun

Sturgeon unveils timetable for ‘mass unlocking’ of Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon is planning a major easing of lockdown restrictions, the Daily Telegraph reports, including lifting a five-mile travel limit and opening up access to holiday homes.

In proper devocrat fashion, this new regime will kick in one Friday, July 3rd – the day before Boris Johnson’s own changes take effect south of the border.

This comes as the Scottish Government faces continuing criticism over its handling of schools, with its plans for so-called ‘blended learning’ coming under attack from both the press and SNP politicians. Scientists have also attacked the evidence base (or lack thereof) underpinning Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to lockdown.

(The Welsh Government is not doing any better, with their Education Secretary unable to say when schools will reopen and likewise committed to ‘blended learning’.)

Local government in the spotlight

The Scotsman reports that several Scottish councils are facing severe financial black holes as a result of the pandemic. Three council have deficits adding up to hundreds of pounds per resident – the highest is £411 – which adds up to hundreds of millions of pounds in total.

This is the latest twist in a long-running battle between the Nationalist administration at Holyrood and Scottish local government. Arch-centralisers, the SNP have been using Scottish Government financial support to reduce the independence of councils.

In Wales, meanwhile, the Centre for Welsh Studies has published a new report which suggests that the Shared Prosperity Fund – the UK-administered scheme which will replace EU funding post-Brexit – should be administered by Westminster and local councils, rather than being handed to the Senedd.

This proposal will doubtless outrage the devocrats, who are consistently opposed to letting Westminster control UK-level policy in the way that Brussels controls EU-level policy. But if the SPF is to become an instrument for strengthening the Union, keeping it out of devocrat hands is essential.

DUP again press Johnson on post-Brexit border arrangements

Their moment in the Commons sun may have passed, but the Democratic Unionists are still trying to hold the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire over his promises to Northern Ireland.

Speaking at yesterday’s PMQs, Sammy Wilson challenged Boris Johnson over the fact that the Port of Larne is reportedly making preparations for extensive customs infrastructure, ready to receive shipping from the British mainland.

In response, the Prime Minister said that “I can tell him absolutely, categorically that there will be no new customs infrastructure”, citing the Withdrawal Agreement’s recognition that Ulster remains inside the British customs territory.

Abolish the Assembly get their first MS

After a few months of growing media attention, following some good poll showings and the defection of their first councillor, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party (‘Abolish’) have secured their first representative in that institution.

Gareth Bennett, an independent MS who previously served as leader of UKIP’s Assembly group, has now signed up to the group. (And if you want an idea of why devosceptics might be rare in Welsh political life, check out the extraordinarily aggressive interview he got from Wales Online).

Apparently Abolish, which recently launched a membership programme, will consider it a good result if they win three seats at the next Senedd poll.

(In other devosceptic news, I spoke to David Leask at the Herald on Sunday about why opposition to devolution appears to be waxing during Covid-19. Most of my section seems to be missing from the online version, but it may return.)