Henry Hill: Sturgeon’s timeline on Salmond scandal called into question as MSPs demand evidence

12 Nov

SNP timeline on Salmond grows ‘murkier’ as MSPs demand legal advice

Two weeks ago, this column had a section entitled “SNP woes deepen again”, the latest in what is becoming a regular feature on the growing laundry list of problems besetting the Scottish Government (not that you’d know it from the polls).

At the top of quite a long list of new challenges was a call by Alex Salmond for the ongoing inquiry into the handling of allegations against him by the SNP administration should be ‘broadened’ to look at “whether the First Minister would be investigated for potentially misleading parliament and failing to act on legal advice”.

It’s been a little while since we last had a proper look at how this row is developing, but this week saw a couple of important developments as the former First Minister, and opposition MSPs, continue to pick through the Nationalists’ story.

The first, reported here in the Courier, is that Nicola Sturgeon appeared to write to her most senior civil servant to confirm that the Scottish Government’s new harassment policy would apply to former ministers only two days after a meeting between her principal private secretary and one of the women who made allegations against Salmond.

As the paper notes, the timing of these events will only encourage those who accuse Sturgeon of being out to get her predecessors. This group certainly includes the man himself and his supporters, but opposition MSPs have also suggested that the two events “appeared to have been co-ordinated”.

Meanwhile Sturgeon has also been trying to claim that she has forgotten the details of a ‘bombshell’ meeting at which she first learned of the allegations against her predecessor. Jackie Baillie, a Labour MSP, attacked her administration’s “pervasive culture of secrecy” after it provided the same “no information” answer to five separate questions about the incident.

The SNP suffered another setback when they were ordered by the Scottish Parliament to hand over the legal advice it received during its ‘doomed’ legal battle with Salmond, according to the Herald. The defeat led to the current Holyrood inquiry after the former First Minister mounted a successful legal challenge to the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against him, accusing it of bias. His victory cost the taxpayer over £500,000.

Now MSPs have apparently given ministers a Friday deadline to hand over the documents. Writing in the Scotsman, Murdo Fraser suggests that the “only reason for the Scottish Government not to publish legal advice is if they have something to hide”.

Yet typically, the SNP’s woes were not confined to this single front. It is reportedly refusing to reveal the final destination of cash the party raised through an ill-judged sale of branded anti-Covid masks, which was promised to charity.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Sun reports that the Scottish Government’s test-and-trace system “is performing up to five times worse than previously claimed”. According to a ‘bombshell report’: “Staff at the virus defence scheme failed to contact around half of recent positive cases within 24 hours of being told of their swab results, revised official stats reveal.”

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, has attacked the SNP for “peddling wildly inaccurate data”. This is a key issue for the Tories because the Nationalists’ perceived competence in handling the Covid-19 crisis is one of the big drivers fuelling support for separation in the polls.

Elsewhere on that front, Alister Jack appears to have hardened the Government’s opposition to a second independence referendum by reiterating once again its “once in a generation” argument (more robust arguments are available) whilst Sir John Major suggested offering the SNP a two-vote plebiscite instead.

Loyalist protests anticipated against backdrop of Stormont’s ‘rank incompetence’

The police are reportedly ‘actively’ monitoring loyalist groups in the expectation of organised protests against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. Activists may ‘descend’ on ports to oppose the new Irish Sea border the Prime Minister signed up to when he capitulated on the Irish Protocol.

Unionist opinion is rapidly hardening against the deal, which sees sweeping new checks imposed on commerce between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, as the scale of the impact becomes clear. Owen Polley provides an overview at CapX, but the most visible symbol of unease is the joint letter from Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, and Michelle O’Neill to the European Union urging it not to impose checks which risk severely restricting Ulster’s food supplies.

Advocates of the Irish Protocol insisted on a sea border over a land border because the latter was easier to police. But this failed to factor in that the volume of trade between the Province and the mainland vastly exceeds that with either the Republic or the rest of the European Union, so any checks there would affect a much greater slice of Northern Irish economic life.

It is also notable that nobody is suggesting that loyalist protests against a sea border render it a breach of the Belfast Agreement, despite the prospect of republican anger at landward checks being taken as evidence of such – another sign of the Government’s hapless failure to develop its own interpretation of the treaty.

One concession ministers did secure was the right of Stormont to set aside the Protocol. Obviously neither Brussels nor Dublin expected it to do so, now that unionists have lost their majority – but a unionism with fight left in it would recognise that protecting east-west commerce could be grounds on which such a campaign could be won.

Yet such a campaign seems a long way off with the DUP, unionism’s pre-eminent party, deeply embroiled in an entirely dysfunctional Stormont system. This week the News Letter has run some truly excoriating reporting on the “rank incompetence” of the Executive, a DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly.

Over the years since this column started, we have covered several attempts to establish new forces in Northern Irish unionism, focused less on little-Ulster rent seeking. In these stories one can see the space where such a party, running against the Protocol and the Stormont system, could make headway. But it remains nowhere to be seen.

Stephen Booth: Brexit-related concerns about a Biden presidency are overblown. The reality is more nuanced.

12 Nov

Stephen Booth is a policy analyst and political commentator.

Much of the media commentary in recent days has suggested a potential Biden Presidency will create short-term diplomatic problems for the UK. From this viewpoint, the prospect of a Biden White House in January 2021 – pending the resolution of the US election process and President Trump’s legal battles – heralds a diminishing of London’s standing in Washington and therefore increases the pressure on the UK to accept the EU’s terms for a trade deal.

The reality is likely to be more nuanced and a Biden Presidency would also present opportunities for Britain to work closely with the US post-Brexit.

In certain EU capitals, a Biden win is seen as strengthening the EU’s leverage in the end game Brexit negotiations over the coming days. Asked whether Biden’s projected win would impact the Brexit talks, Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, replied: “I think perhaps it does.” EU diplomats have been quoted as saying a Biden win would “put a squeeze” on the UK, as the prospect of a UK-US trade deal could slip down the agenda.

The risk is that Brussels overplays its hand. Past evidence would suggest that the current UK negotiating team is more likely to judge a potential UK-EU deal on its merits rather than on what the occupant of the White House might think. An independent trade policy was viewed by many Leave voters as a benefit of Brexit, but this is not the same as believing Brexit was contingent on a trade deal with the US, much as it might be nice to have.

From what little has emerged from the UK-EU talks in recent days, it appears that the EU remains unwilling to bend on fishing, confident that the prize of market access for other more economically significant sectors is more important to the UK. This still assumes the UK is not prepared to walk away on the point of principle – that Brexit means regaining sovereignty over UK waters – which this government appears willing to do, however reluctantly.

The EU is also confident it has Biden on its side in the row over the Internal Market Bill, which would enable ministers to override aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the absence of a UK-EU settlement. Biden’s comments during the election campaign about a US trade deal being contingent on respect for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) were significant, but ultimately, it’s not clear how much has changed on this score.

Indeed, the Government’s very argument is that the powers it is seeking are a necessary “safety net” in order to uphold the UK’s commitments under the GFA. And that it is the EU’s maximalist interpretation of the Protocol which threatens to undermine the GFA.

As I have written previously, a workable compromise on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol is in both sides’ interests. This has been underlined this week with Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers jointly writing to the EU describing the “unacceptable” and “real threat” to food supplies being shipped to Northern Irish supermarkets from Great Britain.

The cross-community plea from the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders for greater EU flexibility on the need for checks should illustrate to Dublin and Brussels that they cannot take consent for the Protocol for granted if it cannot be made to work for individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, despite a large defeat in the House of Lords on the Bill, in the absence of a satisfactory UK-EU deal, there is every sign that the government plans to proceed with its current approach with the Internal Market Bill and forthcoming Finance Bill.

However, if there is UK-EU agreement on the implementation of the Protocol – eased by a wider UK-EU trade deal – the issue could be easily defused as there would be no need for the powers. If a solution is good enough for Dublin and Brussels, it will be good enough for Washington. If there is no deal, everyone will be in uncharted territory, including the US.

Meanwhile, Biden’s historical opposition to Brexit should not be discounted but does not mean it will determine his attitude to Britain now that Brexit is a reality. Following his congratulatory call with the Prime Minister, reportedly the first European leader he spoke to, Biden’s team stressed its desire to work with the UK on global issues such as security cooperation via NATO.

We also know that Biden shares the UK’s view that urgent global action on climate change is required. This presents an obvious opportunity, since the UK will host the 2021 United Nations climate summit, COP26.

Biden is certainly more pro-EU than Trump has been but it should be noted that President Obama arguably did as much as anyone to pivot the US’ focus and attention from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific. This reflected long-term global trends, which individual leaders can amplify or camouflage, but they cannot reverse.

Equally, international alliances are not zero-sum. A rejuvenation of US-EU relations does not have to come at the expense of the UK. Trump’s often combative relationship with the EU has risked forcing the UK to choose between Washington and Brussels when, ideally, it should have workable relations with both.

A US-UK trade deal may well slip down the short-term agenda under Biden but would remain doable. Bilateral trade agreements would not necessarily be his immediate priority, since domestic matters are more pressing. However, post-Brexit, a close UK-US relationship, including deepening the trade relationship, still makes strategic and geopolitical sense, whoever the occupant of the White House.

The UK is a major European power and a top-ranking middle power globally. Nevertheless, the UK might need to be prepared to think more creatively about strengthening US-UK ties. A Biden administration might prioritise large multilateral agreements, such as the Common and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the UK also hopes to join.

Equally, some of the biggest domestic obstacles to a US-UK trade deal, or indeed UK accession to CPTPP, have not gone away. Improved access to the UK’s agricultural markets is a bipartisan interest in the US. The UK will need to be prepared to liberalise in this area if it wants to further its trade ambitions with US and other trade partners, including Australia and New Zealand.

The UK and the US continue to have many shared interests. And, ultimately, while personalities matter in international relations, interests matter more.

Henry Hill: Davies touts ‘devolution revolution’ as the Welsh Tories try to shield their unionist flank

23 Jul

Davies says Wales needs a ‘devolution revolution’

The leader of the Welsh Conservatives has pledged a ‘devolution revolution’ and to give Cardiff Bay a ‘dose of Dom’ in his latest bid to avoid being outflanked by organised devoscepticism.

ITV Wales reports that Paul Davies made the remarks in a ‘virtual speech’ – available on YouTube – to Conservative activists ahead of next year’s elections to the Welsh Parliament.

Other sources report that the Welsh Tories’ new election strategy aims at tackling the long-standing problem this column has covered previously: mobilising Conservative voters who only vote at Westminster and in local elections to turn out for the Senedd. As I wrote two years ago:

“Secondly, both candidates would do well to address the severe disadvantage their Party suffers because hundreds of thousands of its voters do not vote in devolved elections. In 2016 the Tories polled just 215,000 votes, compared to over 400,000 in 2015 and almost 530,000 in 2017.”

Tory strategists have now set themselves the target of mobilising 75 per cent of their general election vote (557,234 in 2019) for the devolved contest, which if successful would almost double their 2016 vote to just under 418,000. For comparison, Labour’s majority-winning Senedd vote in 2016 was just under 354,000.

All this is the latest evidence that the advent of organised opposition to the Welsh Parliament is already shifting the balance of power inside the Conservative Party. The leadership remains firmly in the hands of the ‘devophiles’, but their new slogan – ‘Abolish Labour, not devolution’ – suggests they fear they’re on borrowed time.

Johnson funds research for the ‘Boris Bridge’ as he steps up campaigning in Scotland

News that the Prime Minister intends to embark on a tour of Scotland has probably not brought unconfined joy to unionists north of the border, but it remains infinitely preferable that he fights the good fight than not.

Following a week in which the Government squared up to the devolved administrations over the future of post-Brexit market regulations (with very good reason, and as we covered last week), this morning’s papers carry several stories on Boris Johnson’s pro-UK fightback, with the role of the Treasury in supporting the Scottish economy through the pandemic front and centre.

He has also apparently approved funds for a feasibility study into his proposal for the ‘Boris Bridge’ between Scotland and Northern Ireland. It still seems extremely unlikely it will be built, however, especially once the Government has to start making cuts to pay for all the Covid-19 spending.

MPs set up new ‘Union Research Group’

More evidence that the Tories are marshalling their forces in the Times this week, which covered the emergence of the new Conservative Union Research Group.

This new body is chaired by Robin Millar, the MP for Aberconwy, and aims to bring together backbench MPs to help support the Government as it prepares to take on Nicola Sturgeon and the devocrats. It reportedly already has the backing of around 40 backbenchers.

Although modelled on the European Research Group’s template, which has the virtue of being approved by IPSA, CURG sources emphasise that it is not intended to be a ‘party within a party’ or agitate against the Government. Defending the Union was in the Conservative manifesto in 2019, so it expects to be working with the grain of the leadership.

It isn’t yet clear whether or not the group will have any relationships with other parties – ERG membership is open to the Democratic Unionists – or how precisely it will operate. Watch this space.

Trouble at Stormont as ruling parties try to push through changes

There has been a new fight in Northern Ireland over proposed changes to the Assembly being pushed by Sinn Fein and the DUP, according to the News Letter.

On Tuesday the Assembly took just ten minutes to vote through the crucial stage of legislation which will increase the powers of ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. Arlene Foster, the First Minister and DUP leader, has been accused of making a “massive error” based on a mistaken understanding of the law in question by a senior adviser who has now left the party.

Experts also warn that the changes are likely to lead to more legal challenges against Stormont decisions, contrary to the assertions of both Foster and Michelle O’Neill, her Sinn Fein counterpart.

Meanwhile, Ulster and the Republic have also revived joint ministerial talks, the FT reports, as the new Taoiseach tries to build bridges following the departure of Leo Varadkar.

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.