Henry Hill: SDLP link-up with Fianna Fail has a rocky start as senior MLA quits

Also: Backlash grows against SNP’s new tax; Labour AM apologises for antisemitic comment; and Scottish Tories say they’ve stopped Johnson.

SDLP ‘on back foot’ after senior resignation over merger

The alliance between the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Northern Ireland’s smaller and more moderate nationalist party, and Fianna Fail suffered a blow this week when the former’s most high-profile MLA resigned.

Clare Hanna, the SDLP’s Brexit spokeswoman, resigned from its Assembly group (although not her actual party membership) after a special conference on Saturday approved the new ‘policy partnership’ with the Republic party, the News Letter reports.

She said that: “I remain unconvinced that an exclusive partnership with Fianna Fáil is the right vehicle to deliver the non-sectarian, transparent and social democratic new Ireland I believe in”.

SDLP members backed the proposal at the conference, although 30 per cent voted against it. There apparently remains a lot of uncertainty around what exactly the new relationship entails, with senior figures being coy as to whether it would mean a joint manifesto or similar.

Hanna may not be the last to leave: Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, was reportedly warned that a group of members were “considering their options” after the link-up was approved.

In other Irish nationalist news, Sinn Fein have reiterated their belief that a no-deal Brexit would trigger a border poll in Northern Ireland.

According to the Guardian, Mary Lou McDonald described such a vote as a “democratic necessity” in the event that Britain left the EU without the backstop in place – but declined to say when a referendum should be held.

Writing on this site today, David Shiels has warned ministers that by talking up the prospect of a border poll – in a bid to shepherd unionist MPs behind Theresa May’s withdrawal deal – they are playing into the hands of the republicans.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, continues to insist that such a Brexit can be avoided – even has he refused to negotiate with the Prime Minister during her visit to Dublin earlier this week. However Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, did meet with his Irish counterpart on that Friday, as well as meeting separately with senior figures from the Democratic Unionist Party.

Sammy Wilson, the MP for East Antrim and DUP Brexit spokesman, has had to insist this week that his party remains united in its opposition to the backstop. The News Letter reports that Arlene Foster had earlier refused to be drawn on whether or not she was still demanding its complete abandonment.

Backlash grows against SNP’s new tax

Teachers have announced that they will demand compensation out of public funds if they are subject to the Scottish Government’s new car park tax – in a move the Tories estimate could cost £1.7 million in Edinburgh alone.

According to the Daily Telegraph, this move by the unions comes as part of a growing public backlash against the proposals, which would see charges levied on private car parks such as those operated by businesses and other places of work.

There was also outrage when it was revealed that such a tax is liable for VAT if the cost is passed on to employees, pushing the cost to workers up to around £500 per year.

Derek Mackay, the SNP’s Finance Secretary, accepted an amendment tabled by the Scottish Greens introducing the levy in order to win their support for his budget, which could not have passed without them.

Opposition parties have also this week criticised Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, for talking up the prospect of independence whilst on an official trade trip to the United States.

This prompted Stephen Daisley, writing in the Spectator, to urge the Government to re-assert its prerogatives over foreign affairs and start attaching conditions to the Scottish Government’s use of public funds outwith its remit. Probably too much to hope after ministers’ foolish retreat over post-Brexit devolved powers, but definitely a good idea for a bolder, more imaginative leadership to consider.

In other news, the Scottish Conservatives have reportedly declared victory in their campaign to stop Boris Johnson becoming Tory leader. I wrote about the significance of ‘Operation Arse’ earlier this week.

Labour AM apologises for ‘unacceptable’ comments about Jews

Jenny Rathbone, a Labour member of the Welsh Assembly, has apologised and been issued a formal warning over “unacceptable” comments she made about Jewish communities.

Wales Online reports that the Cardiff Central AM said it was “really uncomfortable” how certain security-conscious synagogues now resemble ‘fortresses’, and that “siege mentalities” might be driving this change. She will now undergo antisemitism training by the Community Security Trust.

Meanwhile Mark Drakeford, the new First Minister, is apparently trying to ease out Wales’ most senior civil servant in order to get a “fresh start”.

David Shiels: Would No Deal lead to Irish unification?

The topic is being discussed – including at Cabinet – but that in itself is not convincing evidence that such a major change is imminent.

Dr David Shiels is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe and also works on contemporary political history.

Would a No Deal Brexit lead to Irish unity? The possibility of the break-up of the United Kingdom triggered by a chaotic Brexit was reportedly discussed at Cabinet last week, with one minister telling colleagues that the UK was “sleepwalking into a border poll.”

The reports have upset the DUP, angry that the constitutional question has been brought into the discussion at this stage. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, said it was a revival of “Project Fear.” After coming on board with the Brady amendment to give the Government more time to renegotiate the Brexit deal, the DUP’s lines on the backstop have hardened in the last few days.

Rightly or wrongly, there is a sense that by talking up the prospects of a No Deal border poll, the Government is feeding into a narrative set by Sinn Fein. From the Government, the message to the DUP seems to be “support our deal or take your chances with a referendum.” For a party which already sees the backstop as something which undermines the integrity of the United Kingdom, the fact that the Government is thinking along these lines is disturbing.

Meanwhile, the interventions by Sir John Major and Tony Blair have also gone down badly with Unionists, the two ex-premiers having recently spoken about the impact of a No Deal Brexit on the peace process. (It should be remembered that the joint intervention by the former Prime Ministers during the 2016 referendum was claimed to have encouraged an increase in Vote Leave support in Northern Ireland).

Of course, some will say that the DUP are getting what they deserve. Brexit was clearly a provocation to Irish Nationalists and the party should not be surprised that talk of Irish unity is now on the agenda in a way that it was not before the referendum. There is a sense that the party has trapped itself into supporting a hard Brexit – though the recent intervention by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP Chief Whip, suggests that the Party acknowledges the dangers of a No Deal Brexit and wants to avoid that outcome.

Although the Irish Government has been keen to downplay the possibility of a border poll – no doubt aware of Unionist sensitivities over the backstop – there are plenty of commentators and politicians in Dublin who are contemplating unity in a way they had not done before. Even John Bruton, the very moderate ex-Taoiseach, has pointed out that “By backing Brexit at all costs, including a no-deal Brexit, the Democratic Unionist Party has enhanced the likelihood of a border poll that would end the Union.”

Despite these conversations about Irish unity, there are no convincing signs that a change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is imminent. True, a number of opinion polls have shown increased support for Irish unity because of Brexit, with more people supporting a united Ireland in that context. The possibility of a No Deal Brexit shows the most dramatic effect, and one opinion poll by the Belfast-based LucidTalk polling company – cited by Bruton – suggested that in the circumstances of No Deal 55 per cent of people would probably or certainly support Irish unity.

It is always difficult to poll for hypothetical situations, however. There is a debate about whether demographics in Northern Ireland favour Irish unity in the longer term – but this would be happening irrespective of Brexit. The most recent actual test of opinion in Northern Ireland – the 2017 General Election – showed that that voters continued to follow traditional patterns of behaviour. The DUP’s vote went up by just over ten per cent on the previous Westminster election, while Sinn Fein’s vote also went up by just under five per cent.

Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must call a border poll “if at any time it appears likely to him [or her] that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.” Some may contend that these circumstances have been met, since the Unionist parties are now polling under 50 per cent at Westminster and Assembly elections.

It could equally be argued that the Nationalist parties would have to win a clear mandate for a border poll before one is called. Much may depend on the position taken by the non-aligned Alliance Party, and whether its anti-Brexit position would lead it to endorse a border poll in the circumstances of No Deal (though there is no suggestion that it would do so). There is also a view, taken by Lord Bew, that the Government could actively use a border poll to determine support for the Union.

Clearly, Unionists must proceed with caution, and they should be prepared for all possibilities. As I have argued before, the fact that all the border constituencies have returned abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs is a sign of considerable dissatisfaction with the existing governance arrangements in Northern Ireland, and this has been exacerbated by Brexit. It is right that the Government takes seriously the concerns of Nationalist opinion.

It may also be that if a Brexit deal is secured, the constitutional question will be taken off the table again.  For as long as No Deal remains a possibility, it is unhelpful for Ministers to speculate about a border poll – particularly as there seems to be little strategic thinking behind this approach. Raising the question is not only counterproductive in terms of bringing the DUP onside, but also adds another element of uncertainty to the current debate in Northern Ireland.

Statesmanship, not brinkmanship, is now needed to deliver the right Brexit deal for Northern Ireland

This past week has sadly brought further damaging rhetoric in the Brexit process and some who ought to be statesmanlike have been anything but. This is surely a moment for statesmanship and for finding a way through the current impasse. We must calm things down and focus on developing a common sense solution to Brexit […]

The post Statesmanship, not brinkmanship, is now needed to deliver the right Brexit deal for Northern Ireland appeared first on BrexitCentral.

This past week has sadly brought further damaging rhetoric in the Brexit process and some who ought to be statesmanlike have been anything but.

This is surely a moment for statesmanship and for finding a way through the current impasse. We must calm things down and focus on developing a common sense solution to Brexit and the Irish border question in particular. In this context I welcome the visits of both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to Belfast and the meeting between both leaders in Dublin: this is the kind of engagement and leadership that is needed to help find a sensible way forward.

I recognise that the UK and the Irish Republic do not agree on Brexit itself and that many in Ireland feel hurt by the decision of the UK to leave the EU. Nevertheless, it is important we all respect democratic decisions of this nature, even when we don’t agree with them. Undoubtedly, the last two years have seen damage done to the three sets of relationships that formed the core of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

The absence of the political institutions, including the Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council, has been to the detriment of all of us. Just think how differently we might have handled this very difficult situation if such institutions had been in place to provide a forum within which Belfast and Dublin could engage and take a more considered view on all of this. Instead, the politics of cooperation has been replaced by the old ways of megaphone diplomacy.

However, we are where we are and leaders on both sides of the border have hitherto shown a remarkable capacity to overcome enormous challenges in the peace process to find our way to the common ground. In the remaining weeks leading up to 29th March, we must do so again. Whilst it is London and Brussels who take the lead in negotiations, I believe that Dublin and Belfast can play a constructive role in helping to find the solutions.

We can begin by recognising that we already occupy significant common ground.

We all agree that the need to protect the peace process and the political and institutional arrangements of the Good Friday, St Andrews and Stormont House Agreements is vital.

Secondly, none of us want a hard border on the island of Ireland or the creation of a new border in the Irish Sea. Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland do a substantial amount of trade with Great Britain as well as with each other. The Common Travel Area ensures the free movement of people across the islands and is accepted by the EU. Now we need to find a sensible solution to ensure a similar approach on the smooth movement of goods. We in the DUP are of the view that a pragmatic approach can deliver an outcome on customs and trade that does not fundamentally undermine the EU single market or the UK single market.

Thirdly, both countries want to avoid a ‘no-deal’ outcome if possible as we recognise this could have significant implications for the short- to medium-term economic stability and prosperity of both parts of the island. Building stability and prosperity goes hand in hand with building peace.

For us, the primary problem with the draft Withdrawal Agreement is the backstop. It is not only the DUP that has concerns about the backstop and our opposition to it has been supported by many from all parties across the House of Commons.

On two occasions now, the House of Commons has voted decisively to reject the backstop in its current form and to call for legally-binding changes to these potentially harmful proposals. Our position on the backstop is also supported by other unionists like Nobel Peace laureate Lord Trimble, who has said that the proposals have the potential to “turn the Belfast Agreement on its head and do serious damage to it.”

Lord Trimble is in the process of taking legal action to challenge the legality of the backstop and his case is supported by leading experts on the Good Friday Agreement such as Professor Lord Bew. For such key architects of the Good Friday Agreement to raise serious concerns about the damaging nature of the proposed backstop must surely encourage the Taoiseach and others to pause and consider other options which are capable of commanding a wider cross-border and cross-community consensus.

If the current impasse between the UK and EU over the backstop results in no-deal then it will further damage relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic and undermine the prospects for restoring the political institutions. The absence of these institutions over the past two years has seen a re-polarisation of attitudes on both sides in Northern Ireland.

In my opinion, securing a deal on Brexit that is broadly acceptable can only improve the prospects for restoring the institutions. It may suit Sinn Fein to have a chaotic situation, but it surely can’t be in the interests of anyone else. Sinn Fein has tried to exploit the uncertainty over Brexit to raise the border poll issue, hoping to force a referendum in the near term. This is, of course, a party that was fiercely opposed to Ireland’s membership of the EU and sought to vote down each successive European Treaty. Clearly, Sinn Fein is self-serving, and its claim to act in the wider interests of the ‘Irish people, north and south’, is bogus.

The consequences of a no-deal outcome will undoubtedly impact on the economies on both sides of the border, with their heavy dependence on the agri-food sector. InterTrade Ireland commissioned the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), an Irish think-tank, to conduct an analysis of the impact of Brexit on the Irish border. ESRI looked at several different scenarios, including one where trade between Ireland and the UK would be based on WTO rules. The resulting imposition of tariffs and non-tariff barriers in this scenario could result in Irish trade to Great Britain falling by 12%, British trade to Ireland falling by 6%, Irish trade to Northern Ireland falling by 14%, and Northern Irish trade to Ireland falling by 19% – resulting in a total reduction in cross-border trade of 16%.

Agri-food in particular is a sector that has expressed concerns about no-deal. A study of the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the EU’s agri-food industry has claimed that beef and cheese exports from Ireland to the UK could collapse by up to 90% with the loss of over 3,500 jobs. No amount of preparation by any government can nullify the significant economic implications outlined.

Additionally, a further fall in the value of sterling in a no-deal scenario would worsen the outcome for Irish exports to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In this scenario, Irish trade to Great Britain would fall by 20%, British trade to Ireland would remain broadly similar (at +0.3 %), Irish trade to Northern Ireland would fall 21%, and Northern Irish trade to Ireland would fall 11% – so there would be a total fall in cross-border trade of 17%.

Despite these stark statistics, there are some who seem determined to impose the backstop. Yet the Withdrawal Agreement and backstop in their current form have been roundly rejected in the UK Parliament because they could lock us indefinitely into an arrangement that undermines the economic integrity of the UK. The backstop is designed to prevent a hard border but could ultimately result in no-deal and actually compel the EU to impose a hard border in Ireland.

Having been an MP for over 20 years and in frontline politics since the early 1980s, too many times have I seen politicians become wedded to an idea and intent on implementing it, even when they are aware of the dire consequences. Now is not a time for brinkmanship but for leadership.

I am convinced that there are better solutions than this. Whilst I am not going to be prescriptive in this article about what they may be, I am aware of several ideas, including the ‘Malthouse Compromise’, that are surely worthy of serious consideration. If the political will is there on both sides, I firmly believe we can find a solution.

The people of the United Kingdom voted by a majority to Leave the European Union. Despite this, the leadership of the EU and some in the UK have sought to frustrate the will of the people and to make it as difficult as possible for our country to Leave. The indefinite nature of the backstop would harm the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK.

The EU leaders have asked Parliament to state clearly what we want. That answer is now clear and the EU must address British concerns about the backstop if a no-deal outcome is to be avoided.

If the EU truly want to avoid harm to the peace process and to protect the political arrangements established under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, then they need to take account of unionist concerns as well as those of nationalists, otherwise, as Lord Trimble has said, they violate the core principles of the Agreement.

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Ciaran Cadden: Could referendums offer a way out of Northern Ireland’s political deadlock?

Why not give the electorate the chance to pass judgement directly on Sinn Fein and the DUP’s ‘red lines’?

Ciaran Cadden graduated from University of Manchester in PPE, and is co-editor of @tweetyouthvoice. He currently teaches English in Taipei.

Any onlooker to the current political discourse in the United Kingdom would perhaps be forgiven for thinking that all aspects of public policy within the country are running so smoothly that we can afford to give all our attention to an amicable divorce from the European Union.

Alas, they would be mistaken, and in the most north-westerly corner of the UK we have been without a functioning devolved government since January 2017. That’s well over six-hundred days, but who’s counting?

Unfortunately, and rather embarrassingly, the world is counting, and watching with despair as a sustained, yet fraught, peace agreement with shared governance is disintegrating before our very eyes.

By no means is the Belfast Agreement of 1998 perfect. In fact, I and many others have reservations in particular about the concept of a ‘shared executive’ and its ability to succeed in an increasingly-polarised electoral environment. The middle ground in Northern Ireland is shrinking, and this may require a fundamental re-think on how to progress with representation at Stormont. I have previously floated the concept of voluntary coalition, but this has been taken up with little to no enthusiasm.

The failure to grasp this nettle has resulted in a rather depressing false false: a sustained lack of representation at Stormont or Direct Rule from Westminster.

Yet another way is possible. As an ideological conservative ,I and many others adhere to the philosophy of small government and the promotion of individual liberty, empowering the individual and the local community in making decisions they see as justified.

Why can’t we make a similar case for governance in Northern Ireland? At least, perhaps, to solve the outlying issues which are ensuring that the locks on the Stormont gates are there for the foreseeable future.

If we are to believe the rhetoric from the DUP and Sinn Fein, alongside the swathes of media reports, governance is being blocked due to two distinct subjects: an Irish Language Act, and social issues pertaining to same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Perhaps it is time to ask the people of Northern Ireland to decide on these issues, and then for the main two parties of the DUP and Sinn Fein to come together and decide on a way forward on health, tourism and a business strategy for a post-Brexit Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein have stated that refusal to back an Irish Language Act is a “red line” in their negotiation strategy, yet commanded only 27.9 per cent of the vote at the last assembly election in 2017. Even if other parties were advocating for a standalone act, it seems illogical to allow this one issue to block governance for everyone in Northern Ireland who rely on Stormont for important decision-making. For example, the Institute of Directors (IoD) have claimed the Stormont stalemate has risked £1 billion of infrastructure projects not going ahead.

By contrast, the DUP and others do not have a majority anymore and thus cannot utilise a ‘Petition of Concern’. However, if Stormont does not sit then no vote can be had on the introduction of same-sex marriage. Something ought to give way.

It is unfair – yet easy – to shrug one’s shoulders and not legislate for matters which appear popular to the Northern Irish electorate. For example, a Sky Data poll in April found 75 per cent of respondents supported the introduction of same-sex marriage. It is also counter-productive to hold the institutions to ransom over a language act.

However, I do not agree that MPs in Westminster should rail-road decision making for the Northern Irish people no matter how much virtue-signalling they utilise. Thus, to break the impasse one ought to advocate for one or more referendums.

‘Referendum’ is now a dirty word, particularly on the British Isles for people who didn’t get their way on the Brexit referendum (even though these people advocate for another referendum to correct the original verdict!). But they are democracy in action, a direct application of people power which has worked from ancient Greece to modern-day Switzerland – and even in the Republic of Ireland, where use of such a means has changed their constitution beyond recognition.

Even though Sinn Fein have weaponised the ancient language, Irish is not necessarily a one-sided issue, and nor indeed are social issues such as same-sex marriage. Allowing for the electorate to rise above divisive rhetoric of election time, and vote for an issue at face-value, will cultivate that sense of togetherness and cooperationwhichNorthern Irish politics is so desperately lacking.

Empowering the electorate to decide on such issues, and thus issuing a mandate to legislators for governing, should allow talks to continue without so-called “red lines”. Instead we could look to a governing institution which will advocate and deliver prosperity for all in Northern Ireland.

Henry Hill: Trimble raises over £10,000 for legal challenge to the backstop

Also: SNP insist on leading Holyrood inquiry into Sturgeon’s handling of Salmond allegations; and Ulster Unionists call for Direct Rule in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Architect of the Belfast Agreement rallies support for challenge as UUP call for direct rule

The News Letter reports that Lord Trimble, the Northern Irish peer who helped negotiate the Belfast Agreement, has managed to raise more than £10,000 to mount a legal challenge against the mooted ‘backstop’.

An appeal by the “informal group” supporting his efforts has apparently elicited a strong response, backed by an online crowdfunding effort.

Trimble, who served as First Minister of the Province whilst leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, backed Brexit and has been a public opponent of the Government’s approach to Northern Irish issues during the Brexit negotiations – particularly its habit of giving false credence to Dublin’s assertions that the Agreement required an invisible border.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the legal basis for the challenge is set out in this Policy Exchange paper from Lord Bew, who also set out his thinking in the News Letter  and on this website.

Outside Trimble’s circle there is a great deal of scepticism about his case’s chances of success. However, that one of the two men who won the Nobel Prize for the Belfast Agreement felt moved to take this step illustrates once again the depth and breadth of political unionism’s opposition to Dublin’s demands in the Brexit negotiations.

All of this comes in a week when the Democratic Unionists sent out their own, somewhat contradictory signals over the backstop.

Whilst the Financial Times reported that Arlene Foster was hinting at ‘flexibility’ over making a deal work, Sammy Wilson – the DUP’s Brexit spokesman and most vocal Brexiteer – declared that the party would vote against “any” backstop proposal.

He added that Eurosceptics had been “surprised and annoyed” when the Prime Minister used a speech in Belfast to reiterate her commitment to the backstop – in the same week that the Times reported Angela Merkel’s intention to try to pressure the Irish Government into softening its own stance. Meanwhile Jacob Rees-Mogg told a DUP meeting that even a no-deal departure need not require a hard border.

In commentary this week, Ben Lowry claimed that it was a “massive failure of civic unionism” that the backstop got so far with so little criticism; Henry Newman set out 12 reasons the backstop makes “no sense at all”; and Eilis O’Hanlon alleged that Ireland was in the “grip of Anglophobia“.

Labour vote against SNP-led inquiry into Salmond

Scottish Labour yesterday voted against plans for a Scottish Parliament inquiry into the botched handling of the allegations against Alex Salmond – because the Nationalists would lead it.

The Guardian reports that under Holyrood’s rules the SNP is entitled to chair the next committee established, and that Nicola Sturgeon has declined the option of relinquishing control. Moreover, she has appointed to it four ex-ministers who served in her predecessor’s administration.

In an attempt to reassure MSPs and regain cross-party support, the Nationalists highlighted that one of these, Linda Fabiani, is currently Deputy Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. But despite voting for the proposals alongside the Liberal Democrats and Greens, the Conservatives insisted that they would still prefer the governing party to cede the leadership of it to another group.

Elsewhere this week Derek Mackay, the Scottish Government’s Finance Secretary, insisted that his party was united around a controversial new parking tax he included in his budget to win the support of the Scottish Greens, after a Nationalist MSP had to perform a very public u-turn on the subject. Earlier this week business leaders said that they had been “humiliated” and “dismayed” by the raft of new tax measures the left-wing, separatist-inclined party had managed to extract from the Scottish Government.

Ulster Unionists call for direct rule in the event of a no-deal Brexit

Robin Swann, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has said that Theresa May must introduce proper direct rule over Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal departure from the European Union, according to the News Letter.

The North Antrim MLA said that the Province would require “political leadership and direction” to navigate the challenges posed by such a scenario. He added that the Prime Minister had apparently been extremely reluctant at their meeting to discuss progress towards restoring Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions.

Ulster has been run by its civil service, operating on effective autopilot and without direct political accountability, since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly in January 2017.

Karen Bradley has been criticised for saying that getting the devolved institutions back on their feet was her “top priority” despite the dearth of any pro-active efforts by the British Government to do so.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon warns SNP to brace for early election if budget falls

Also: DUP urge Government to adopt more aggressive approach to EU negotiations; Cardiff Conservative councillor reinstated; and more.

Sturgeon warns SNP to brace for early election if Budget falls

Nationalist officials have been told to prepare for an early Holyrood election if the Scottish Government fails to pass its Budget today, according to the Scotsman.

The SNP apparently enter today’s crucial vote without having yet secured a majority in the Chamber, meaning they risk defeat on their spending plans for the year ahead. Alex Salmond threatened a snap election when his minority administration lost its 2009 budget, although his successor is being more conciliatory today.

Derek Mackay, the Finance Secretary, has been wooing the hard-left Scottish Greens, whose demands reportedly include a further hike to income tax north of the border. Such a move would be grist to the mill of the Tories, who are already attacking the so-called ‘tax gap’ created by the Nationalists’ divergence from Westminster policies.

However, Nicola Sturgeon’s motives may not be entirely related to this: there are also suggestions that she needs, or at least wants, a fresh mandate from the electorate to demand another referendum on Scottish independence. (The divisions arising from the previous one are helping to box her party in on the budget question: the separatist Greens are currently the only viable deal partner for the SNP, who can no longer woo unionist MSPs as they did before 2011.)

Following the fallout from Salmond’s arrest, which we covered last week, the First Minister has been forced to insist that his fall will not overshadow the broader movement for breaking up the UK. Her party came under fresh criticism this week after an SNP politician was chosen to chair an inquiry into how the Scottish Government botched its handling of complaints against the former First Minister. There have even been concerns that saturation coverage of the case may impede a fair trial.

On that front, this week a Nationalist MSP warned his party not to try to bounce the electorate into a second referendum.

Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s defence spokesman, warned his colleagues against simply re-running the same ‘Yes’ campaign that was defeated in 2014, warning that the party needed to comprehensively review its case for independence (this week export figures highlighted once again the paramount importance of UK trade to Scotland) and consider the timing of any new referendum very carefully.

DUP throw weight behind ‘Malthouse Compromise’

The Government has been accused of trying to block moves to introduce abortion reform to Ulster (via amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill) in order to keep its Democratic Unionist allies on-side.

This comes as the Northern Irish party makes a fresh effort to push the Government to adopt its own, very aggressive approach to political negotiations in an effort to exploit what it sees as a new ‘logical flaw’ in the EU’s backstop position – namely a very obvious split between Brussels and Dublin over what will happen to the border in the event of a no-deal exit.

In related news, security experts have reportedly rubbished Leo Varadkar’s warnings that troops might need to be deployed in the event that Britain leaves the EU without the backstop in place, and Dominic Raab has attacked the Taoiseach for allegedly leaking falsehoods from confidential meetings between the then-Brexit Secretary and the Irish Government.

The DUP have also thrown their weight behind the so-called ‘Malthouse Compromise’ this week, and their votes secured the Brady Amendment.

Cardiff Conservative councillor in row over homeless’ tents

A Tory councillor was suspended – and then reinstated – from the Conservative group on Cardiff City Council this week after making controversial comments about homeless people’s tents.

Kathryn Kelloway attracted huge ire after she tweeted to urge Huw Thomas, the council leader, to ‘tear down’ tents belonging to homeless people in the city centre. She then attacked her critics as “virtue signallers” who were unrepresentative of public opinion on the subject.

However, she was reinstated after a meeting which confirmed that removing the tents remains Conservative policy – and that the current Labour administration in city hall had expressed similar concerns, albeit in different language, that distributing tents was actually cutting the number of people the council was getting off the streets.

Kelloway herself defended her tweets, arguing that there was more than enough hostel accommodation in Cardiff to cater to the entire homeless population and thus there was “no reason for anyone to sleep rough here”.

Divisions deepen inside SDLP over merger plans

The News Letter reports that proposals for Northern Ireland’s smaller, more moderate nationalist party to merge with one from the republic are a source of increasing tensions.

Senior figures, including ex-leader Mark Durkan, have refused to publicly endorse plans for a partnership with Fianna Fail, whilst one former MLA warned that it would make unionists wary of working with the party in Stormont.

Meanwhile the Northern Irish Office is hiring a strategist to try to break the logjam and get the devolved government back on its feet, according to the Belfast Telegraph. This comes after Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State, had to bring forward a direct-rule budget for the Province for the third consecutive year.

In other SDLP news, the party helped to deliver a vote on Londonderry council condemning the recent car-bombing. The motion passed by only a single vote after Sinn Fein and independent republican councillors tabled a much weaker one which only ‘opposed’ – but did not ‘condemn’ – the action. Some of those arrested in the wake of the attack are members of a new, unregistered republican party.

‘Malthouse Compromise’ wins DUP backing and support from trade experts

Late last night it emerged that MPs representing a broad cross-section of Tory opinion on Brexit had been working together on a new plan behind which Leavers and Remainers could unite. The so-called Malthouse Compromise – named after Brexit-backing minister Kit Malthouse who helped broker the discussions that brought the parties together – would provide […]

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Late last night it emerged that MPs representing a broad cross-section of Tory opinion on Brexit had been working together on a new plan behind which Leavers and Remainers could unite.

The so-called Malthouse Compromise – named after Brexit-backing minister Kit Malthouse who helped broker the discussions that brought the parties together – would provide for “exit from the EU on time with a new backstop, which would be acceptable indefinitely, but which incentivises us all to reach a new future relationship”.

Also reportedly involved in the talks that brought about the proposals were European Research Group stalwarts Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker, Remain-backing ministers Stephen Hammond and Robert Buckland, as well as Treasury Committee Chair and former Cabinet Minister Nicky Morgan.

The plan would extend the transition period by a year to December 2021, which would “allow both parties to prepare properly for WTO terms, but also provide a period in which the parties could obviate this outcome by negotiating a mutually beneficial future relationship”.

A summary of the proposals is circulating, which explains it as follows: 

Plan A – Revise negotiated Withdrawal Agreement and Framework

Outline:

  • Immediately table legal text to amend the Withdrawal Agreement to replace the backstop with an acceptable indefinite solution set
    out in A Better Deal, 12 Dec 2019
  • Maintain our offer on the rights of EU citizens in the UK, the agreed financial settlement, and the proposed Implementation Period
    (IP) until no later than Dec 2021, or sooner on conclusion of the Future Relationship (FR)
  • Require that, at the end of the IP or sooner, the UK shall negotiate fisheries access as an independent coastal state, under UNCLOS

Advantages

  • Rescues the Withdrawal Agreement
  • Maximises leverage plus secure a transition period
  • No backstop dangers: the new protocol is permanent, a “frontstop” and should be objectively acceptable to all.

Disadvantages

  • Uncertainty continues until the FR is ratified
  • Difficulty of persuading Eurosceptics to swallow:
  • – £39bn payment
  • – Saving the effect of the ECA during the IP
  • – Additional EU citizens’ rights
  •  – Other WA problems (DSC, CCP vs WTO)

Plan B – Basic transition agreement=====================

Outline:

  • Continue to offer legal text for Plan A and bilateral cooperation in areas of mutual interest, including security, in a spirit of goodwill
    and cooperation
  • Unilaterally guarantee EU citizens’ rights
  • Uphold current standards, pending a comprehensive FR
  • Offer to pay our net contribution (c.£10bn pa) in exchange for the Implementation Period as negotiated, until no later than Dec 2021
  • Require that, at the end of the IP or sooner, the UK shall negotiate fisheries access as an independent coastal state, under UNCLOS
  • Work to agree an interim GATT XXIV compliant trading arrangement, pending a comprehensive FR
  • Revise our financial offer to the minimum compatible with our public law international obligations and submit to arbitration

Advantages

  • Offers a standstill to 2021 to enable negotiations
  • Preserves optionality
  • Secures time
  • Secures exit

Disadvantages

  • Risks EU conditions, legislation, extension
  • No Withdrawal Agreement
  • Eurosceptic concern about:
  • – Structure of standstill, esp saving ECA effect
  • – Money

The DUP have been swift to endorse the Malthouse proposals, with party leader Arlene Foster issuing a statement to formally endorse the plan:

“We believe it can unify a number of strands in the Brexit debate including the views of remainers and leavers. It also gives a feasible alternative to the backstop proposed by the European Union which would split the United Kingdom or keep the entire United Kingdom in the Customs Union and Single Market. Importantly, this proposal would also offer a route towards negotiating a future trade relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

“If the Prime Minister is seeking to find a united front, both between elements in her own party and the DUP, in the negotiations which she will enter with the European Union, then this is a proposition which she should not turn her back on. There is no better time to advance this alternative given the confusion and disarray which is now manifesting itself in Brussels. This has been displayed both by the contradictory EU statements and the panic stricken behaviour of the Irish government.”

Steve Baker has also released a letter in support of the Better Deal plan from a range of international trade experts, which reads as follows:

Dear Steve,

You have asked for our views as trade policy experts as to the proposal of a Better Deal as an acceptable Withdrawal Agreement that would allow the UK to proceed to the next stage of negotiations, and that would not, in our view take an independent trade and regulatory policy off the table, and would allow, if the UK so chose a clear and negotiable pathway to a comprehensive and advanced free trade agreement such as proposed in Plan A Plus.

We can confirm that in our view the UK would be best served by putting an offer like a Better Deal on the table, and allow the process of pressure and compression at the back end of the negotiations to start to take effect. We would anticipate that the UK will see datapoints emerge from the EU in the course of the next month, such as EU member state agricultural producers express concern about the possibility of no deal, especially Irish beef farmers, Bavarian dairy farmers, and French farmers. We would anticipate member states start to weaken in their unity vis-à-vis each other and the Commission. We have already seen signs of this from Germany, Poland, and from French farmers and fishermen. It is imperative that the UK keeps the pressure on (seeking an extension of Article 50 at the end of February per the Cooper-Boles amendment would be a fatal mistake as it would take the pressure off the EU just as it would otherwise be building). In addition, there is value to putting this facilitated approach on the table as if there is to be an FTA in the future, it will require discussion and evaluation now. It is better to get the EU used to UK ideas on this point, and to put some specifics behind Michel Barnier’s recent pronouncement that, in the event of no deal, alternative arrangements would have to be found for the Irish border. Furthermore, during this period, it would be important for the UK to line up its allies, especially those who run global supply chains through the UK and EU-27 such as the US, Japan, and Korea to name three in support of its reasonable proposals, thus increasing the pressure and compression on the EU.

In our view the current deal gives all the negotiating leverage to the EU during the negotiating phase and makes the path to an advanced FTA such as we have proposed in Plan A Plus extremely difficult. If comfort could be given that such an un-occluded path exists, then support might be brought to bear on all sides for an agreement allowing the transition period to be retained.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Allgeier, Former Deputy USTR and Former US Ambassador to the WTO
Eduardo Perez-Motta, Former Mexican Ambassador to the WTO and Former Chairman of the Mexican Competition Commission
Alan Oxley, former Chairman of GATT Council, Former Australian Ambassador to the WTO, founder of the Cairns Group
Lockwood Smith, former Trade Minister of New Zealand
Shanker Singham, former cleared advisor to US government, Mitt Romney Presidential Campaigns of 2008 and 2012, and formerhead of Squire Patton Boggs Market Access/WTO practice
Hans Maessen, Customs specialist, SGS Corporation, and representative of CLECAT, European Association of Customs Professionals
U. Srinivasa Rangan, Professor of International Business, Babson College, US

The post ‘Malthouse Compromise’ wins DUP backing and support from trade experts appeared first on BrexitCentral.

Unless pro-Leave MPs back the Brady plan today, they risk ending up with no Brexit at all

The Prime Minister doesn’t need to endorse every dot and comma of it. But she does need to show the EU that the Commons and her Party can agree on something.

The least bad outcome of today’s Commons votes is that European Research Group members, and other Brexiteer MPs, vote for the amendment about which Graham Brady writes on this site this morning (assuming that the Speaker selects it).

They may be right to object that adding a codicil in addition to the backstop, rather than simply scrapping the latter, would not provide the legal certainty required to guarantee an end to its effects.  By floating the prospect of a codicil, Sir Graham thereby alienated some pro-Leave Tory MPs without necessarily persuading some pro-Remain ones.

But Theresa May doesn’t want to present the EU with the Brady proposal word for word.  What she is aiming to do is to show it that the Commons isn’t opposed to everything, but can agree on something – and that at the core of that something is the removal of the backstop as it stands.  Hence her decision to whip in favour of the Brady amendment – a late decision, but better late than never.

The new Malthouse compromise, agreed on by Conservative Soft and Hard Brexiteers alike, could then supplement the Brady proposal: in a nutshell, this seeks to replace the present backstop with a different one, which would either allow a “smooth transition” to a deal or put in place a “triple safety net” if there is no deal.

Or else the Prime Minister could try the Bew plan, which may be more realistic.  Either way, neither the EU nor the Irish Government will be willing, surely, to drop the idea of a backstop entirely.  But replacing it, as the Malthouse idea proposes, or ameliorating and time-limiting it and, as Bew suggests, may be a different matter – especially since Michel Barnier has now let the unicorn out of the bag over maxfac.

If the Brady amendment is not carried, the following sequence of events is almost certain.  Remainers and Soft Brexiteers in the Government and Commons will say that May tried to take the ERG with her, and failed; that the only option left for her is to go with them; and that this means extending Article 50, doing a deal with Labour MPs, and then accepting either Norway Plus or a second referendum.

A further weakened Prime Minister would no longer be in a position to resist.  The power pendulum within the Government would swing back to David Lidington, the group of pro-Soft Brexit Cabinet Ministers fronted by Amber Rudd, and the policy instincts of the civil service.  And the Conservative Party would face the prospect of a formal split, paving the way for a Marxist government under Jeremy Corbyn.

DUP MPs meet this morning.  If they decide that the Brady amendment is at least a start, and declare that it should form the basis of an approach to Brussels, ERG members should take note.  It may of course be that there is some procedural twist later today that ConservativeHome can’t anticipate this morning, but the choice for pro-Brexit MPs as we write is a straightforward one.

The stark truth is that by angling for everything they risk getting nothing – whether the Cooper amendment passes today or not.  Plus the risk of paving the way either for Brexit in name only, or for a second referendum that could tear the country apart, whatever the result.

Nicky Morgan: This Brexit logjam is holding up positive politics. Now the Prime Minister must break it.

The way to head these moves off – and this development is anticipated in the Cooper Bill which I am supporting – is to put an agreement in place.

Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.

Last week, I was asked to speak at a breakfast on domestic policy priorities. On Thursday, I took part in a backbench debate on Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. And on Saturday, I visited a local opticians to talk about issues affecting their business. How refreshing not to talk about Brexit!

I said to the editor of Conservative Home when discussing this column over the weekend that I almost couldn’t bear to write about Brexit – and Tuesday’s coming debate. The discussion is now so circular – and the lack of focus on anything else so frustrating – when there is so much else to do. But it is of course the biggest political issue confronting us, and so it must be addressed.

After her historic defeat the week before last, the Prime Minister had several choices to make, and one of them was whether she would now try to build a cross-party consensus to get a Brexit deal through the Commons. The alternative was to try to find a way of amending the draft Withdrawal Agreement so that it was then supported, in a future vote, by the majority of Conservative MPs and DUP. And perhaps a few opposition MPs might support it too.

She has chosen the latter course. For understandable reasons, she doesn’t want to be the Conservative Party leader who oversees the split of what is arguably the world’s oldest and most successful political party.

However, allowing a vacuum to develop in relation to her strategy for addressing the Withdrawal Agreement is not working. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that MPs have tabled more and more amendments to try to flush out Downing Street’s next steps.

I would argue that what is needed now is a big, bold offer to the EU and to MPs. If the backstop is such a problem, and imposing a time limit or agreeing a unilateral right of withdrawal are such an issue, then is there another way of achieving the same end?

As some MPs make moves to head off a No Deal outcome to Brexit on 29th March (it is worth noting that is in just 60 days’ time), the clamour about an extension to Article 50 is likely to grow even louder. The way to head these moves off – and this development is anticipated in the Cooper Bill which I am supporting – is to put an agreement in place.

But there is no point in persisting with an agreement which cannot be supported by the majority of the Prime Minister’s own Party and those that she relies upon for votes. If she believes there are changes that might persuade MPs to alter their position on the agreement, then she needs to spell them out rapidly.

And while it might not be possible at this stage to get into great detail, any amendment needs to provide sufficient signals to the EU that, if it is backed by a majority of Conservative MPs and the DUP, it will in turn be the basis of her next ‘ask’ to Brussels. As the Editor of this site wrote yesterday, the best amendment to that purpose would be one tabled by the Government itself.

The reputation of MPs, Parliament and the Conservative Party is not being enhanced by the Brexit process. That message has even reached Buckingham Palace (and the Sandringham Women’s Institute). None of us came into politics to deal with the sterile logjam of Brexit – or to see Whitehall’s bandwidth so constrained that it almost can’t do anything other than Brexit at the moment. Any agreement will be a huge compromise for all of us. But in the national interest we need to get one in place – and we don’t have long to do it.