Hammond, Penrose, and Kwarteng join the Government as May circles the wagons

The Prime Minister has eschewed the chance to bind waverers with patronage in favour of promoting able loyalists who won’t make trouble.

This afternoon the Government announced three junior appointments to fill the vacancies left by yesterday’s resignations.

Stephen Hammond – Minister of State, Health & Social Care

In some ways, this is a bit of a surprise. With Theresa May facing a make-or-break Commons vote on her Brexit deal, one might have expected her to use this opportunity to buy off one or two of the wavering rebels with a little patronage – as premiers are wont to do.

Hammond certainly gave the Government trouble on earlier votes, but at this point he’s a pro-deal ex-Remain voice on the backbenches. Whether or not this decision represents optimism or merely fatalism on May’s part remains to be seen.

Notwithstanding all that, however, he is a very experienced former minister who has been keen to return to Government. Combined with his antipathy to the European Research Group, it therefore seems unlikely that he’s going to cause any trouble by resigning.

John Penrose – Minister of State, Northern Ireland

Another able former minister, Penrose is a slightly odd case on things Brexit. Described by the BBC as “ardently pro-Remain“, he has nonetheless signed off letters from the European Research Group in the past.

Another loyalist, the Public Whip reports that Penrose has only once rebelled against the Government in the current Parliament. Significantly, however, that was on a piece of Northern Irish legislation: namely an amendment aiming to force Karen Bradley, his new boss, to justify how officials could continue to implement the Province’s strict abortion laws.

Not only is this another opportunity not taken to bind waverers to the Government line, therefore, but it is also another indication that the Prime Minister is prepared to further aggravate the Democratic Unionists – and perhaps change Northern Irish policy, too. Quite how this administration could continue to govern until 2022 without them is another matter.

Kwasi Kwarteng – Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Exiting the European Union

Unlike Hammond and Penrose, Kwarteng is a Brexiteer and supported a Leave vote during the referendum. His elevation is nonetheless effectively an internal promotion as far as the numbers go, as he was previously serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Philip Hammond.

He now shoulders the burden of trying to help his new boss, Steve Barclay, in preparing to wind up the Brexit department and – in the seemingly likely event that the withdrawal agreement is voted down by the Commons – preparing the nation for No Deal.

Henry Hill: Bradley faces another week of fierce criticism over ‘flying visit’

Also: Scottish Tories attack SNP over income tax ‘gap’; no boost for Plaid from new leader; and DUP’s Brexit donation given a clean bill of legal health.

Fresh criticism for Bradley over ’embarrassing’ meeting with local parties

Karen Bradley has had another bad week, with the Northern Irish press excoriating her over an ’embarrassing’ meeting with ocal parties which some present branded a “waste of time”.

The Belfast Telegraph reports that relations between the Secretary of State and local politicians are now worse than ever, something which can only hinder her ongoing bid to get the devolved assembly back on its feet. Last week she challenged them to stop grandstanding and return to government in an op-ed for the paper. There was one small sign of progress when Sinn Fein indicated that they would accept Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, returning as First Minister.

Unfortunately, this is not the only time that Bradley has been accused of not spending enough time at important events, having also been criticised for giving an under-whelming speech at an important UK-Irish event before leaving abruptly. In an editorial the Belfast Telegraph drew withering comparisonsalso between her and some of her predecessors, and another writer reports that “in this deepening crisis, the Secretary of State is being seen more and more as the problem.”

But the pain was at least spread around a little this week. Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary, has been strongly criticised by Northern Irish business groups for failing to engage with their concerns over our departure from the EU. He has been pressed on why he didn’t meet representatives of affected sectors, including manufacturing, freight, retail, and food and drink, on a recent visit.

He did however reiterate his commitment that he wouldn’t support any deal which undermined the constitutional integrity of the UK – although Ben Lowry, writing in the News Letter, is deeply sceptical of that.

Scottish Conservatives attack SNP over tax

Nicola Sturgeon has refused to pass on the tax cuts announced in the Budget to Scottish taxpayers – and the Tories have seized the opportunity to go on the offensive.

The Scotsman reports that Jackson Carlaw, who is standing in for Ruth Davidson whilst she is on maternity leave, pressed the First Minister on the fact that Scots now face paying £1,000 extra in income tax every year compared to counterparts in England. He also called Sturgeon ‘out of touch’, and credited that with the Conservatives’ newly-regained strength in what was once the Nationalist heartland of north-eastern Scotland.

One of those new MPs, Andrew Bowie, who represents West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, also criticised the devolved administration’s high tax approach – and was counter-attacked by the SNP for being ‘anti-devolution’, according to the Press & Journal.

In other Scottish Tory news, the Prime Minister has promised them that the UK will be out of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy by 2020, before the crucial Holyrood elections of 2021.

Nationalists call for even war to require devolved consent

The devocrat push to reduce the UK to a dysfunctional confederation continued this week when Plaid Cymru called for the Welsh Assembly to be given a veto on the deployment of British troops overseas.

Fortunately both the Conservatives and Labour figures pushed back against these proposals, according to the BBC, the latter emphasising how it would complicate some of the defence treaties and alliances the UK is party to.

This is one of the first policy stories out of the Welsh nationalists since they elected their new leader, Adam Price, who met with Theresa May in Downing Street last week. Such harder-edged nationalist positions will complicate the hope, nurtured by some Welsh Conservatives, that his leadership might make a Con-Nat pact to oust Labour viable in Cardiff Bay.

ITV have also reported on a new Welsh political poll indicating that, in the words of Professor Roger Awan-Scully, “the installation of their new leader has not generated any momentum for them at all.” It also shows that the Conservatives have sufficiently improved their position relative to 2017 to regain Vale of Clwyd and capture Wrexham from Labour.

In other Welsh news, Wales Online has interviewed each of the three candidates – Mark Drakeford, Vaughn Gething, and Eluned Morgan – vying to succeed Carwyn Jones as Labour leader and First Minister.

DUP donation given clean bill of legal health

In the aftermath of the EU referendum, the Democratic Unionists came under scrutiny from Remain-leaning outlets (primarily openDemocracy) about a substantial donation they received from a group called the Constitutional Research Council.

As well as trying to drum up concern by implying it might have had something to do with the Saudi intelligence services, there was also a slightly absurd effort to persuade people that the DUP even getting involved in mainland campaigning was somehow suspicious.

I dealt with the latter argument at the time – in a UK-wide referendum there is absolutely no reason for the DUP to confine its efforts to Northern Ireland – and this week the Electoral Commission have also ruled that, for all its being ‘dark’, the CRC’s donation was entirely legal.

This comes in the same week that the Information Commissioner dismissed Carole Cadwalladr’s long-running conspiracy theory about illegal collusion betweein Vote Leave and Leave.eu via Cambridge Analytica.

Cox is hoisted shoulder-high to the top of our Cabinet League Table

We have occasionally seen precipitous falls in Cabinet members’ scores. Vertiginous rises are rarer. Indeed, it is hard to think of a jump quite like it.

 

When our last Cabinet League Table was published, Geoffrey Cox had neither made his ringing speech to the Conservative Party Conference, nor yet brought a new clarity in Cabinet to what comes before it from the Brexit negotiations. And though he was sat mid-table, his rating was a modest + 11.

This month, it soars by almost 60 points to take him to the table’s top. We have occasionally seen precipitous falls in Cabinet members’ scores. Vertiginous rises are rarer. Indeed, it is hard to think of a jump quite like it. We may now even get a Cox-for-leader ramp, though our view is that he is well placed to take over, in due course, at Justice.

The Attorney General has clearly raised great expectations among the pro-Brexit generality of party members. But their approval is not confined to those who campaigned for Leave during the EU referendum.  Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt are second and third. The Foreign Secretary’s rating has scarcely moved. The Home Secretary’s has actually risen slightly.

Dominic Raab is now fourth. Esther McVey has slid: that will be the impact of the Universal Credit row. Gavin Williamson is out of negative territory. We suspect that Philip Hammond’s score would have been higher had the survey gone out post rather than pre-Budget, but the Softer Brexiteers, as usual, take a pasting, with the Prime Minister’s score down on last month.

Henry Hill: Cox agrees to meet Tory MPs campaigning for troops who served in Northern Ireland

Also: May meets new Plaid leader in Downing Street; Bradley mulls ‘external mediator’ for devolution talks; SNP row over ‘People’s Vote’; and more.

Cox agrees to meet campaigners against ‘witch-hunt’ of Ulster veterans

Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, has been enjoying a rapid ascent to fan-favourite status after a star turn on the conference stage and some high-profile leadership against bids to fudge the Irish backstop.

This is only likely to be furthered by the news that, as reported in the Sun, he has agreed to meet representatives of the strong Tory campaign against the ‘witch hunt’ of ex-servicemen who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Over 150 Conservative MPs and peers have signed a letter to May attacking proposals for another round of historical investigations into the conduct of British security forces in the Province, calling for veterans to be offered “lasting legal protection” from further harassment – and accusing the Government of breaking the Military Covenant.

Mark Francois, a former defence minister, has joined the chorus of MPs urging the Prime Minister to take action, according to the News Letter.

The prosecution of now-elderly former soldiers is especially fraught in the aftermath of the revelation that many “on-the-run” terror suspects had been granted a de facto amnesty by the Government under the so-called “comfort letter” scheme.

May invites Plaid leader for talks in Downing Street

Wales Online reports that Adam Price, the newly-elected leader of Plaid Cymru, held face-to-face talks with Theresa May in Number Ten this week.

The Welsh nationalists currently hold four seats in the House of Commons, and may have a crucial role to play in what could be knife-edge Brexit votes. However, Price apparently reiterated his party’s commitment to a second referendum, which doesn’t suggest it’s likely to back the Government.

He also issued the inevitable request for yet more devolved powers, this time a range of economic ‘tools’ and an expanded ability to borrow, and had a dig at the Labour-led Welsh Government for failing to exert adequate influence at Westminster.

In other Plaid news, a former nationalist member of the Welsh Assembly has avoided prison after pleading guilty to making indecent images of children.

Bradley mulling ‘external mediator’ for Northern Ireland

Karen Bradley is “actively considering” whether and how an external mediator could help to get the Province’s devolved settlement up and running again, according to the Belfast Telegraph.

The Northern Irish Secretary has been come in for fresh criticism after the Government once again ducked the prospect of direct rule, instead opting to grant civil servants the power to make decisions normally made by elected and accountable politicians.

Sam McBride, of the News Letter, reports that the local Attorney General has already had to stop them “literally making up criminal offences“, and questions remain as to how long Westminster can continue to put off taking up political responsibility for Northern Ireland – especially in light of concerted efforts by mainland MPs to drive through changes to sensitive areas of social legislation such as abortion and gay marriage.

Wishart urges Sturgeon to drop support for second referendum

The EU referendum has posed a number of strategic challenges for the Scottish National Party, the latest of which is what to do about the campaign for a rematch.

On the one hand, Brexit has struck a major blow to Scotland’s easiest path out of the Union – ‘independence in Europe’. For all that hardline remainers such as Guto Bebb still extol the old orthodoxy, it is greatly in the interest of the separatist parties to see the 2016 vote overturned.

Yet to do that would be to set a very dangerous precedent that a referendum result should be revisited and ratified by the electorate after the negotiations. The danger this poses to SNP aspirations is obvious.

This explains why a row has broken out this week amongst the normally iron-disciplined Nationalists. Pete Wishart, who now has the distinction of being the Party’s longest-serving MP, accused Nicola Sturgeon of undermining the independence campaign by backing a ‘People’s Vote’, campaigners for which have in turn urged the First Minister to distance herself from him.

In other Nationalist news, this week the party was forced to suspend a member after he authored a xenophobic and antisemitic blog which was shared by SNP social media channels, according to the Herald.

DUP challenged over Budget role

The Ulster Unionists have claimed that the Government has called the bluff of its Democratic Unionist allies, after the latter backed the Budget despite threats to withhold their support over the Irish backstop, the News Letter reports.

Lord Empey, who previously led the UUP and helped to forge its ill-fated alliance with the Conservatives at the 2010 election, said that the DUP were retreating with “their tail between their legs”.

In response Sammy Wilson, the DUP MP for East Antrim, has reiterated that his party might still withdraw support from the Prime Minister at a future date.

This comes as more details emerge about the Northern Irish party’s influence. A report in today’s Daily Mail indicates that regular high-level meetings between the DUP’s Commons leadership and senior Government figures, including David Lidington and Julian Smith, have been taking place on a monthly basis.

The party has also been keen to take credit for several measures in the Budget, both Ulster-related – such as the £350 million city deal for Belfast – and UK-wide measures such as the Armed Forces Covenant donation.